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

During 1991 the NRA mounted another major military offensive which included sealing the north from the rest of the country. Although militarily effective, it was again tarnished by significant human rights violations. For example, in April 1991 NRA soldiers are alleged to have extrajudicially executed over 30 villagers at Komyoke in Atanga Sub-County in Kitgum. In the same month soldiers at Burcoro in Paicho Sub-County in Gulu tortured 34 prisoners by confining them in a pit. Three men were reportedly beaten to death and four others suffocated [14].

In a number of incidents where off-duty soldiers or men who had deserted committed rape or murder the military authorities tried and convicted them at field courts martial leading to almost immediate execution. These trials were unfair (they did not afford the internationally recognised rights to defence or appeal). After protests from within Uganda and elsewhere, in late 1992 reforms were made to the military justice system and field courts martial were discontinued [15]. The military justice system, however, remained problematic. From a human rights perspective, the system still did not conform to international standards (for example, there remained inadequate provision for appeal). At a unit level, the system was secretive and did not inspire confidence among the public that soldiers arrested for alleged crimes against civilians would actually be tried. Further, in many key incidents involving the violation of human rights during military operations little action was taken to bring soldiers to justice.

In 1992 new NRA commanders in the north developed a counter-insurgency strategy that improved collaboration with the civilian authorities. The next two and a half years saw a reduced level of military activity from both Joseph Kony's forces and the army. In late 1993 and early 1994 government officials held peace talks with Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leaders, as the armed group was by then known.

The latest phase of the war began in early 1994. In February the peace talks collapsed after President Museveni gave LRA leaders seven days to lay down their arms. Meanwhile, the Sudan Government began to provide the LRA with military and logistical support, which gave the movement the means to intensify its activity. This support, which remains a key element in the LRA's ability to sustain intensive military activity, was described in the report "Breaking God's commands": the destruction of childhood by the Lord's Resistance Army, published by Amnesty International on 18 September 1997.

In 1995 the scale of violence and child abduction by the LRA increased dramatically. The LRA intensified the use of anti-personnel and anti-vehicle landmines throughout Gulu and Kitgum Districts causing hundreds of deaths and injuries. Some attacks on civilians involved large-scale loss of life. For example, in April 1995 the LRA raided Atiak trading centre in northern Gulu District. Several hundred people were rounded up and taken approximately 10 kilometres to a river bank. There the LRA shot dead 130 adolescents and young adults. In all, over 200 civilians are believed to have been killed in the raid. Church sources in Kitgum report that by the end of 1995, 730 children had been abducted in Pajule, over 250 in Puranga, 502 in Patongo and over 600 in Atanga.

As 1996 began Kitgum and Gulu were already badly affected by insecurity largely caused by LRA attacks on civilians. The end of 1995, however, was relatively quiet. This proved to be a temporary lull. The LRA was regrouping in Sudan and in February 1996 new units crossed into Uganda.

2. Civilians at the heart of war: internal displacement

Civilians -- and the relationship of each side with them -- are at the very heart of the way the war is being fought. As a result, at the start of 1999 there were approximately 400,000 persons displaced from their homes in Gulu and Kitgum Districts. The worst affected area is Gulu, where approximately 80% of the population is displaced.