Uganda: Breaking the circle: Protecting human rights in the northern war zone

March 16, 1999

Uganda: Breaking the circle: Protecting human rights in the northern war zone

There is, in fact, no single official really accountable for following up reports of human rights abuse and for ensuring that action is taken. For example, the RDC has power and commands respect but RDCs also have innumerable other responsibilities that require direct cooperation with the army. These may compete in priority with pursuing the issue of human rights violations with the UPDF.

While LCs are accountable to their communities, in the sense that they have to stand for re-election, in reality they are intermediaries without power. The wider community may want some situations drawn to the attention of the authorities but may prefer others to be kept low-key to avoid antagonizing soldiers. This might prevent LCs from following up cases, despite the wishes of immediate relatives.

The UPDF states that it is committed to maintaining good relations with civilians as part of its overall counter-insurgency strategy and accepts that this involves a degree of accountability. However, this only goes so far. The UPDF's PRO is not accountable to the public but to more senior military officers. The pattern of official action and response to reports of human rights violations by soldiers suggests that action is unlikely where an alleged incident has taken place in the context of a military operation. The blanket denial, without investigation, of the apparently unlawful killing by the UPDF of 30 child captives of the LRA in March 1998 is a case in point.

5.3 The weakness of criminal investigation

The second set of reasons why there is de facto impunity for soldiers lies in the weakness of criminal investigation. These weaknesses exist in relation to all criminal investigations but are perhaps at their most acute when they involve the investigation of soldiers alleged to have committed human rights violations.

The general legal position is as follows. Under Ugandan law a criminal charge has to be brought within 48 hours of arrest. A charge has to contain a statement of the specific offence together with "such particulars as may be necessary for giving reasonable information as to the nature of the offence charged" [54]. This means that sufficient investigation should have taken place prior to the charge being brought to establish details of the alleged offence.

However, this does not always happen. Many arrests, in relation to all forms of crime, appear to be made because a complainant is either powerful or vocal. Also, while it is essential that investigation and the collection of evidence should continue after a suspect has been charged, various obstacles and disincentives mean that this is not always done quickly -- or sometimes done at all.

Arrests by soldiers or security officers

With outlying police stations in Gulu District closed and the police concentrated in Gulu town, it is common for the UPDF to be involved in making arrests, especially of persons suspected of political offences or soldiers alleged to have been involved in human rights violations. Three intelligence organizations, the UPDF's Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), the Internal Security Organization (ISO) and PIN are also sometimes involved. While neither the DMI nor ISO is trained or equipped (or officially authorized) to collect evidence in a manner that might enable criminal prosecution (and PIN does not have any constitutional or legal status at all), this has not stopped the institutions from arresting people they suspect of criminal offences. The manner in which this has been done has often resulted in both the abuse of human rights and the failure of subsequent prosecutions.

Within the UPDF Military Police there is a specialist department, the Special Investigation Branch (SIB), that is trained in criminal investigation. The SIB is used to investigate offences internal to the army for trial within the military justice system [55]. The SIB does not appear to be a particularly well-resourced department within the army. In the words of a senior police officer in Kampala, "they are thin on the ground and are needed everywhere. They are constantly moving from unit to unit" [56]. It seems that in Gulu the SIB works only rarely in association with the police Criminal Investigation Department (CID).