Friday, April 27, 2007

Uganda ready to drop ICC warrant to make peace with Kony

After three months of stalled talks, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has re-opened negotiations to end its 20 year war with Uganda. The LRA agreed to come back to the talks under the auspices of UN Special Envoy Joaquim Chissano, ex-president of Mozambique. Discussions resumed yesterday in Juba, the capital of Southern Sudan. Chissano pleaded with the LRA to make a go of it saying it was a last chance.

Both sides seem to be keen to make the most of the opportunity with conciliatory gestures apparent prior to the talks. Peace negotiations began in the middle of last year but broke down after three months because the rebels feared for their safety. The problem was caused by International Criminal Court warrants issued against several senior LRA leaders including Joseph Kony. Those warrants remain a sticking point. The LRA are demanding they be dropped as a precursor to any settlement while Uganda will only agree to an amnesty if a peace deal is signed.

The host of the current talks, South Sudan president Salva Kiir, has urged both sides to put aside their differences. At the opening of the talks at Juba Raha Hotel he said “The problems you are attempting to solve are not so deep rooted as we had in Sudan”. Kiir has vested interests in the settlement of the dispute as the battlefield has spread across his border into the newly autonomous South Sudan.

A report published by USAID’s Famine Early Warning System Network stated LRA attacks on civilian populations in southern Sudan pose a significant threat to food security and overall stability in the Equatoria states. After the last peace talks broke down, the LRA retreated to the Central African Republic (CAR), attacking and looting South Sudanese communities on their way. LRA activity is also hampering the return of 250,000 Sudanese refugees who fled into northern Uganda to escape the Sudanese civil war.

In October, the ICC issued a warrant against five LRA leaders including Joseph Kony. The arrest warrants of arrest are historic as they are the first to be issued by the ICC since its creation by the Rome Statute in 1998. According to the warrants, the LRA has established a pattern of brutalisation of the civilian population “by acts including murder, abduction, sexual enslavement, mutilation, as well as mass burnings of houses and looting of camp settlements”. Kony is wanted for the most serious charges, 33 counts in all including 12 crimes against humanity and 21 charges of murder. His deputy Vincent Otti is also wanted on 33 similar charges. Otti is believed to be hiding in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Because the ICC does not have its own military or police force, it relies on support from the Ugandan government and the international community at large for assistance with arrest and evidence proceedings. Before the meeting Ugandan defence minister Amama Mbabazi said the warrants had been passed on to the country’s Director of Public Prosecutions in accordance with procedure. He also said
believes that one of the other men charged Dominic Ongwen was killed by Ugandan troops in September during an LRA incursion.

Kony, meanwhile, remains in hiding in Sudan, while the ICC warrant stands. He is represented in Jube by Martin Ojul. Captain Barigye Bakoku, the spokesman for the Ugandan delegation has described the start of the meeting as "cordial and brotherly”. He told AFP “I hope we are going to move smoothly up to the end because I saw seriousness in both delegations." But human rights bodies are watching Uganda carefully and are fearful Uganda will drop the criminal charges. HRW estimate Kony’s group has kidnapped 25,000 children.

But President Museveni will face pressure to come to a deal with Kony. A coalition of more than 40 local and international non-governmental organisations known as Civil Society Organisations for Peace in Northern Uganda (CSOPNU) has estimated the persistent conflict in the North has constrained economic and social development across the whole of Uganda. CSOPNU estimated the conflict has cost at least US$1.33 billion over the last 16 years - 3% of Uganda’s GDP over the period. The war has displaced half a million people, schooling is rare in the north, and HIV is rampant. The country desperately needs peace, and Museveni may be ready to pay a high price for it.

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