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

These people have abandoned their homes, become largely dependent on relief assistance and lost most of their possessions. Most have congregated in crowded camps, quite unlike the dispersed farms and homesteads surrounded by fields that are the usual settlement pattern in the Gulu and Kitgum countryside. Others have fled into Gulu and Kitgum towns. Tens of thousands more have gone to neighbouring districts, particularly across the Nile to Masindi.

The manner in which displacement is characterized is part of the propaganda battle associated with the war. Given the scale of displacement, it is not surprising that the processes through which people have come to be displaced, the conditions in which they are living and their vulnerability to human rights abuse once in camps have become highly political issues. The very words used to define displaced camps are heavily charged with political meaning. Government officials and others tend to call them "protected villages". Some government opponents, including the LRA, use the phrase "concentration camps". These slogans obscure rather then illuminate the events that led to the creation of the camps and the daily reality of people's lives now that they exist. Amnesty International has chosen to use the word "camps" in an effort to find a term that has neither positive nor negative implications.

Since the war began the number of internally displaced persons has risen and fallen according to events. There is no single or simple pattern to displacement. In some areas during the 1997 and 1998 planting and cultivation seasons some villagers returned to their fields. In some places people sleep in the camps but spend the daylight hours at their nearby homes. The times when most people have moved are when one side or another have put civilians in the countryside at the centre of their military tactics.

In Gulu District the current massive degree of displacement began in 1996. There are two main reasons for it. The first is intensive military action by the LRA directed against villagers. The second is the implementation by the government of a policy of putting people in camps. This has included incidents in which the UPDF has violated human rights to enforce movement. In Kitgum District, where large scale displacement began in 1997, the authorities have not placed such a policy emphasis on the creation of camps and fewer persons are displaced.

In human rights terms the movement of people into camps in Gulu and Kitgum Districts presents a series of dilemmas. Villagers are being attacked with extreme violence by the LRA, in breach of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions. The authorities have an obligation to protect people from violence perpetrated by the LRA and, of course, by UPDF soldiers and other government agents. The authorities argue that providing protection from the LRA is not possible if people remain dispersed throughout the countryside.

On the other hand, persons living in camps are trapped in the war zone almost totally dependent on the authorities, who many do not trust politically. Camps, like villages, are a focus of LRA attacks. Villagers in camps are even less in control of their own destiny than they were when they were in the countryside, where they could at least cultivate and try and negotiate their security and survival through their own efforts. The result has been that in some places people have been very reluctant to enter camps.

In the context of the gross human rights abuses of the LRA, Amnesty International does not believe that the creation of camps by the authorities, or a policy of moving people into camps, is intrinsically a violation of human rights or humanitarian law. However, the organization is concerned that human rights violations by government forces have been a factor in forcing people to move. For example, in some places people have been indiscriminately shelled or beaten by ground troops.

The first section of this chapter lays out the aims of LRA insurgency and UPDF counter-insurgency -- the reasons for displacement.