The International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s visit to Uganda has prompted fresh calls for the tribunal to investigate atrocities allegedly committed by government forces fighting the Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency in the north of the country.
Fatou Bensouda is in Uganda to urge victims of crimes allegedly committed by top LRA commander Dominic Ongwen, who is in ICC custody following his surrender earlier this year, to participate in his trial.
"The atrocities in northern Uganda were committed by both the government troops and LRA rebels. We need fresh investigations and prosecution of both actors," Hellen Akello, a survivor of a 2004 LRA massacre of 300 people in Barlonyo, Lira District, told Bensouda during a community meeting.
"We hope your team will carry out fresh investigation and [gather] evidence on the atrocities committed by the LRA and UPDF [Uganda People's Defense Forces]," she said.
The war in northern Uganda began in 1986. The LRA has yet to give up its insurgency, but is now active in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, and no longer in northern Uganda.
"We suffered and are still in pain because of this war - we lost relatives and property; we were forced into camps. The atrocities were not committed by one side alone. The atrocities were committed by the LRA and government troops," said Richard Okello, who chairs the local council in the settlement of Angweng, also in Lira District.
"We are not satisfied with the ICC. There were double standards. I am wondering why the court indicted LRA commanders and not government troops," said Regan Okumu, a legislator from northern Uganda and the chairman of Acholi Parliamentary Group.
Bensouda told the gathering that her priority was to gather evidence for Ongwen’s case, which his surrender unexpectedly reopened after many years of dormancy.
"At the moment, I can't be able to say I will investigate or not be able to investigate UPDF. At an appropriate time, I will come up with an appropriate statement on the situation," she said.
"The ICC has the mandate to try war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. If the actions of the government troops amount to these crimes, the ICC has a right to look at them."
In 2010, Bensouda’s predecessor, Louis Moreno-Ocampo, said the tribunal was “analyzing” complaints against the UPDF, including cases of torture and forced displacement. No charges have since been brought by the tribunal against any Ugandan soldier or state official.
A decade earlier, human rights groups sounded alarm bells over the actions of government forces in the north, notably the fatal March 1998 shooting of 30 children, allegedly by government soldiers in Kitgum district.
In April 1991, government forces committed a range of abuses against civilians they had detained in Burcoro in Gulu district, including “murder, rape, sexual violence, torture, cruel treatment, deprivation of liberty, outrages upon personal dignity, pillaging and other inhumane acts,” according to a report released in 2013 by the Justice and Reconciliation Project, a local NGO.
Abuses by the Ugandan army have also been extensively chronicled by both the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch.
UPDF Political Commissar Col. Felix Kulayigye dismissed the fresh calls for prosecutions as baseless, saying all soldiers who committed atrocities in northern Uganda were prosecuted and punished.
"We don't condone impunity in the military. Those who committed atrocities in northern Uganda were court-martialed and convicted," he told IRIN.
"It's on record. We have executed our soldiers for the atrocities they committed in the region. We put about 30 soldiers on firing squad," he said.
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