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

In July 1998 a United Nations conference in Rome adopted the Statute of the International Criminal Court, marking an important development in the protection of the human rights of people in war zones. This creates a permanent international criminal court complementary to national jurisdictions with power to bring to justice persons accused of the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The statute of the court brings together the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in one place. In the future major breaches of international humanitarian law may be the subject of international criminal prosecution.

In April 1998 the Representative of the UN Secretary General on Internally Displaced Persons presented the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement to the UN Commission on Human Rights [10]. These set out the rights of internally displaced persons and the obligations of governments and armed opposition groups in all phases of displacement. Although the Guiding Principles are not a legally binding instrument, they bring together the essential principles of international humanitarian law, international human rights law and international refugee law in one document with the intention of reinforcing and strengthening existing legal provisions [11]. They provide a practical guide to the rights of internally displaced people tailored specifically to their needs.

In relation to displacement, international legal principles are clear on the following. First, it cannot be discriminatory. Secondly, it may only be undertaken exceptionally and in the specific circumstances provided for in international law. Displacement of civilians cannot, for example, be used as a tactic in warfare. Thirdly, these circumstances can be assessed on the basis of necessity and proportionality. In other words, the situation must be such that displacement is absolutely required. For example, can the safety of civilians be provided for by other reasonable means? Is the extent of displacement proportionate to the situation? Fourthly, displacement should last no longer than is absolutely required. Fifthly, all persons are protected against genocide, murder, summary or arbitrary executions, abduction and all other acts that violate the rights to life, dignity and liberty. Such acts would include direct or indiscriminate attacks on unarmed civilians, rape, torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Sixthly, governments are obliged to make provision for the basic physical needs of displaced persons.

Based on these principles, should the circumstances be such that international law allows displacement there is an obligation on states to demonstrate that they are taking reasonable steps, first, to keep it to a minimum and, secondly, to create the situation in which it can be brought to an end as quickly as possible. If over a reasonable period of time there is little sign that the state or other parties are moving forward on these issues, the degree to which the authorities are entitled to compel displacement is put in doubt.

1.3 The war and human rights abuse: a contextual history

The origins of the war lie in the early 1980s in the military struggle between the government of Milton Obote and the armed opposition National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) led by Yoweri Museveni. This was a war characterized by the gross violation of human rights by the government army, then known as the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), including the mass killing of tens of thousands of civilians in parts of Mpigi, Bushenyi and Luwero Districts. A significant proportion of the UNLA was made up of troops from the Langi and Acholi ethnic groups of northern Uganda.