Sunday, February 24, 2008

Uganda signs permanent ceasefire with LRA

After 18 months of discussion, the Ugandan government has signed a permanent ceasefire with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The two sides signed the agreement on Friday at talks in Juba, Southern Sudan. The Ugandan government has described it as a “major breakthrough” and former President of Mozambique, Joachim Chissano, who is mediating the talks called it “the end of the war”. The deal will come into effect 24 hours after both sides sign a comprehensive peace deal, which Chissano hopes will be achieved later this week.

The ceasefire terms prohibit LRA recruitment or rearmament and movement beyond the Southern Sudanese assembly area. It also creates a 10km buffer-zone around the assembly area, guarded by southern Sudanese troops. The last remaining issue to be dealt with is the demobilisation of LRA fighters and their integration into the Ugandan army. This may still be tricky as LRA leaders walked out of the talks just a day before signing the agreement after the Ugandans turned down their request for monetary compensation.

In August 2006, Uganda signed a truce with the LRA. That truce committed both sides to end the bloodshed and cease hostile propaganda. The rebels were given three weeks to leave their hideouts in Uganda and northern Congo and assemble at two south Sudanese camps. Though the ceasefire was later renewed, negotiations brokered by south Sudanese mediators frequently stalled.

The 20-year rebellion by the LRA in northern Uganda left tens of thousands of people dead and nearly two million displaced. The LRA became infamous for their brutal methods, killing of civilians, kidnapping children for use as soldiers and porters, and their mutilation of victims. Leader and self proclaimed mystic Joseph Kony began one of a series of initially popular uprisings in northern Uganda after President Yoweri Museveni seized power in 1986.

Kony claimed the Lord's Resistance Army was fighting to defend the Biblical Ten Commandments, although they also had more prosaic demands such as stopping the looting of cattle by Museveni’s troops and wanting a greater share of political power for his Acholi people. Kony was originally supported by the Sudanese (Khartoum) government though they cut ties with the LRA in 1999 in exchange for Uganda dropping support for Southern Sudanese rebels. Since then Kony has been on the run in the DRC and desperate to sign a deal.

One sticking point in the current deal is the outstanding matter of international warrants for Kony’s arrest. The LRA has said it will never sign a final peace deal unless the International Criminal Court (ICC) drops indictments against its leaders for atrocities. They have now been supported by Uganda which has agreed to set up a special division of the Ugandan High Court. The LRA is now relying on Uganda’s ability to persuade the ICC to drop the charges. Kony and two of his commanders are wanted by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Last week, the ICC issued a statement saying that the arrest warrants still stand. The office of the prosecutor is not a party to the peace process," it said. "The arrest warrants against the LRA commanders were issued by the court and remain in effect.” However the statement did offer a way forward by saying the indictments could be lifted if the ICC judges decide whether national trials are an adequate alternative to prosecution. "A challenge to the admissibility of the case remains hypothetical and, in any event, would be a matter for the judges of the court to decide upon,” said the ICC. Some difficult negotiation remains ahead to prove Chissano’s optimism that the war is indeed, ended.

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