Peace in Northern Uganda?

Might peace finally be possible in Northern Uganda? Over the course of two decades, the conflict between the Ugandan government and Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army has caused the displacement of almost two million people, with many thousands killed or raped. An estimated 30,000 children were abducted and forced to become child soldiers or wives in the L.R.A., a cult-like group whose leader’s claim to biblically based spiritual powers allowed him to keep control over them. Even apart from abductions, children in Northern Uganda have suffered greatly. According to a recent report by a group of national and international nongovernmental organizations, Between Hope and Fear, one child in five has lost one or both parents.

Internally displaced people live in squalid camps that often lack clean drinking water and adequate sanitary facilities. The U.N.’s World Food Program provides most of the food, but because of a shortfall in donated funds, it may have to reduce supplies by up to 50 percent of the daily need in some areas. Education has also suffered. Seventy percent of I.D.P.’s have not completed their primary education, and only 5 percent of young people over 15 have completed secondary education.

Nevertheless, hopeful signs have appeared that a peaceful resolution may still be possible to end one of the most neglected humanitarian crises in the world. Formal peace negotiations between the Ugandan government and the L.R.A. began last July in the town of Juba, in south Sudan. On Aug. 26 an agreement on cessation of hostilities was reached. Trusting in this development, some 300,000 displaced people in Northern Uganda returned either to their homes or to designated sites close to them. Since the cessation of hostilities agreement, there have also been no reports of abductions.


A step backward came in January, however, when the L.R.A. delegation walked out of the peace talks. Its member demanded a change of venue and claimed to fear for their safety when Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, said he would banish the L.R.A. from Sudan. But soon afterward it was agreed that they could remain. One unresolved obstacle lies in the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Kony and four of his deputies on charges of war crimes. The rebels have demanded that the arrest warrants be lifted as a precondition for any comprehensive agreement. The Ugandan government, for its part, has insisted that the agreement be signed first. The international community sees the indictments as a test case of the court’s viability. Joseph Donnelly, of Caritas Internationalis, told America that the I.C.C. has the ability to put the indictments on hold while examining some form of transitional justice that might offer a solution.

One especially hopeful step came with last November’s appointment by the U.N. secretary general of Joachim Chissano as special envoy to the Great Lakes areas affected by the L.R.A. Mr. Chissano, a former president of Mozambique who addressed the U.N. Security Council on March 22, had already spoken personally with Joseph Kony earlier in the month. The involvement of mediators from nearby African countries could also add strength to the process, as well as the contribution of local religious leaders who have served as pivotal players in sustaining the talks.

The international community, including the United States, has taken increasing notice of the gravity of the situation. Senator Russ Feingold (Democrat of Wisconsin), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on African Affairs, has emphasized the need for U.S. participation in saying that the United States and the international community must step up...efforts to achieve a lasting peace. Senator Sam Brownback (Republican of Kansas) has made similar statements. N.G.O. representatives see in such comments encouraging signs of recognition of the scale of the crisis in Northern Uganda.

Although the international community should also provide more funding for humanitarian needs, Between Hope and Fear notes that no amount of humanitarian relief can substitute for what is most urgently needed: a negotiated peaceful solution to the conflict. Even if a peace agreement is reached, a huge challenge will be how to reintegrate the I.D.P.’sand former combatantsback into their normal lives. As one N.G.O. representative put it: after 20 years of fighting, such complex issues will not be resolved in a few weeks. A national plan for recovery in Northern Uganda is in the drafting stage. But peace is necessarily the first step toward any recovery for a part of Uganda that has borne the brunt of two decades of devastating conflict.

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