The ongoing trial of Dominic Ongwen at the International Criminal Court is an important step in the accountability process for the war in northern Uganda. It is also important to remember that this is not the end of the conversation around justice and reconciliation in Uganda.
The violence has not ended
For many in northern Uganda, the violence did not end with the war. Survivors of war-time rape, defilement, sexual exploitation, as well as early and forced marriage are still a marginalised and vulnerable group. In a 2014 study with women conflict-SGBV survivors in northern Uganda we found that 93% say that they still face the same threats as they did in the past. While many have worked to break the silence about these experiences, redress is still lacking.
Redress here can mean providing economic empowerment through skills training and adult literacy programmes which will enable survivors to be self-reliant and in control of their daily lives. It also means structural and institutional reform allowing for free and accessible medical, psychosocial, social and legal support for survivors. All of this would go a long way in addressing and preventing the stigma, exploitation and revictimisation that comes with the vulnerability of being a war-time SGBV survivor.
There should be accountability for both past and current violations. The ICC’s prosecutor has included conflict-SGBV charges in her case against Dominic Ongwen, but there still remain thousands of female and male survivors in and outside of northern Uganda who suffered outside the scope of those charges during the war. Many have received neither accountability nor acknowledgment for the crimes that were committed against them.
Children born of war
There are also very many whose rights and experiences, while important, are often unjustifiably ignored and overlooked. These include children born of war – children born in captivity or from war-related rape or defilement – who face stigma in their communities and schools and are unable to access or own land and other resources because of the complex and gendered nature of property inheritance in the region. We have worked with war-affected women and cultural leaders to support their reintegration in northern Uganda through family reunions, but this is an area that needs the support of actors across all sectors to make a contribution.
Dealing with the past and the future
3 February 2017 will mark nine years since the signing of the Juba peace talk’s Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation, the agreement that gave birth to what would develop into a draft national policy on transitional justice for Uganda. For some time, there seemed to be progress on this. Unfortunately, however, the momentum for this process has stalled. Several years later, however, the last and final draft of the TJ policy is still reportedly lagging in cabinet.
This policy was meant to provide guidance to the government to “address justice, accountability and reconciliation needs of post conflict Uganda” and to both deal with the country’s past and prevent conflict in the future. However, because of its ambiguous status, the possibility of a national truth-telling process or a reparations programme for victims of war remain distant despite how important many Ugandans have said how important these processes are.
Accountability for state-led crimes
We have documented the experiences of survivors of crimes committed by state forces during the war in northern Uganda and have found a running theme among survivors: a call for acknowledgment of these crimes by the Ugandan government and for measures, such as reparations, to be put in place. Some of these crimes have in the past been acknowledged by the government, most notably by President Museveni in 2014. Unfortunately, there has been little public accountability for what took place. Reports suggest that government perpetrators, soldiers, have been subjected to punishment for crimes committed during Uganda’s wars in northern Uganda, but concrete details about these are not readily available to the public. This leaves survivors, their families and their communities with the feeling that their experiences have gone unnoticed.
The war in northern Uganda is an example of the complexity of conflict, where the lines of perpetrator are blurred between state, rebel and civilian, the abductors and the abductees. It is this complexity which tells us that it is not one process that will provide solutions to the years of conflict. If Uganda is ever going to move past its history of conflict, we need to address the many concerns of survivors in northern Uganda and the rest of the country that still remain.
Oryem Nyeko is the Communications and Advocacy Team Leader at the Justice and Reconciliation Project.