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

The obligations and duties that exist for both government and armed groups under international human rights and humanitarian law and armed groups under international humanitarian law provide a framework for discussion of human rights abuse that reduces the risk of falling into a debate on which side is somehow "worse" or "better" than the other. Human rights abuses by one side, no matter how gross, do not provide legitimacy to abuses by the other side. Looking at human rights abuses in relation to an objective set of legal standards is the first step towards breaking the circle of violence.

All parties to the war in northern Uganda are bound by the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law. Article 3, common to all four Geneva Conventions, extends protection to "persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention or any other cause...". It requires that at minimum such persons be treated humanely and prohibits "at any time and in any place whatsoever" certain acts including violence to life and person, in particular, murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture, the taking of hostages and humiliating and degrading treatment.

Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, which relates to the protection of the victims of non-international armed conflicts, develops and supplements the provisions of Common Article 3, and creates obligations for all parties to a conflict. It also defines prohibited acts, some with a specific focus on the civilian population. For example, in addition to the acts banned by Common Article 3, Article 4 of Additional Protocol II prohibits slavery and the slave trade in all its forms, rape and pillage. Article 13 states that the civilian population as well as individual civilians shall enjoy general protection against the dangers arising from military operations. To give effect to this, the Article prohibits making civilians the objects of attack and bans acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror. Article 14 prohibits the use of starvation as a method of combat.

Article 17 prohibits the forced movement of civilians. This, however, is not an absolute prohibition because it allows for forced movement where the party to the conflict can show that the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand. In an important clause, the article goes on to define positive obligations, stating "should such displacements have to be carried out, all possible measures shall be taken in order that the civilian population may be received under satisfactory conditions of shelter, hygiene, health, safety and nutrition". The general intention of Article 17 is to prohibit forced movement except in the most exceptional situations and to ensure that if it does take place certain safeguards are implemented for the physical protection of civilians affected [8].

In addition, as a state party the government is also bound by the more complex and far-reaching set of legal principles enshrined in international human rights law. Uganda has ratified or acceded to all the major international human rights treaties and is accordingly bound by them [9]. One of the most important international treaties, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), allows the derogation of certain rights in the context of an officially declared public emergency that threatens the life of the nation (as long as the derogation is not inconsistent with other international legal obligations). Uganda has not declared a public emergency in northern Uganda and has not made any derogations from the ICCPR. Further, specific rights, including those prohibiting arbitrary killings and torture, cannot be derogated from, even in times of war. The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, the most important regional human rights instrument, does not allow derogation.