The Way Forward in Uganda

Washington Events Advocate U.S. Role

Activists including Betty Bigombe, Ryan Gosling, and John Prendergast met in Washington this week to discuss the war in northern Uganda.

From left to right, at the June 5 event at the Center for American Progress: Laren Poole; Betty Bigombe; Ryan Gosling; Jimmie Briggs; Michael Poffenberger; John Prendergast

Celebrity activists and experts joined forces recently for two days of intense meetings in Washington, D.C.,  in an effort to end Africa’s longest-running war: the 20-year conflict in northern Uganda. Academy Award-nominated actor Ryan Gosling and ENOUGH Project co-chair John Prendergast, author of the new strategy paper “The Answer to the Lord’s Resistance Army,” urged strong U.S. leadership in a coordinated international push to end the war as they met with senior U.S. officials, congressional lawmakers, journalists, students, and activists. For more with Gosling and Prendergast, check out the Think Progress interview, YouTube video, and Campus Progress Blog report.

Prendergast and Gosling were joined by activists working on the crisis in northern Uganda, including Betty Bigombe, a long-time negotiator in the Ugandan peace process and fellow at the United States Institute of Peace; Michael Poffenberger, executive director of Resolve Uganda; Laren Poole, founder and filmmaker of Invisible Children; Jimmie Briggs, author of Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War; and Melissa Fitzgerald, an actress on “The West Wing” and producer of Voices of Uganda. Ben McKenzie, an actor from the “The OC,” also lent his support to this collaborative advocacy effort.

According the ENOUGH Director Anita Sharma, for almost 20 years a civil war in northern Uganda has killed more than half a million people, displaced almost two million more, and resulted in the abduction of 50,000 children. Often called “the world’s worst forgotten crisis,” the people of northern Uganda are caught in the midst of a civil war between the government and Joseph Kony‘s Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that makes extensive use of tactics such as kidnapping children for use as child soldiers.

As was discussed in the two days of Washington meetings, hope lies with the renewed internationally sponsored Juba Peace Initiative and road map for comprehensive solutions to the conflict. Panelists at the ENOUGH event described a dual approach to peacemaking aimed at defusing the LRA security threat as well as promoting rehabilitation, reconstruction, and reconciliation in northern Uganda.

“To end this nightmare once and for all, the Ugandan government and the international community must construct an overall peace strategy,” argues Prendergast. His paper outlines the four essential ingredients to securing peace in northern Uganda.

The Washington discussions focused on drawing attention to the conflict and advocating a solution to the missing ingredient needed to end it: political will. Given the U.S. government’s close relationship with and consequent leverage of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, ENOUGH and its partners explained that the United States has a key role to play and called on the White House to name a senior official to work on behalf of the peace process.

“We don’t need billions of dollars or U.S. troops,” Bigombe and Poole argue. “We are asking for the U.S. to take a leadership role.” In support of this effort, ENOUGH, Resolve Uganda, and Invisible Children are circulating a letter of support sponsored by Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI), urging President Bush to help improve the prospects for peace in northern Uganda by dispatching a senior-level diplomat to directly support the peace negotiations. Currently, the letter has 12 Senate signatories but ENOUGH’s advocacy efforts are aimed at lengthening the list.

The Washington events started on June 5, when Campus Progress and ENOUGH hosted an event titled “The Way Forward in Northern Uganda” at the Center for American Progress. More than 300 students and young professionals crammed into the event, which aimed to highlight the power of advocacy on prospects for peace in northern Uganda. Invisible Children screened a short video called “Displace Me,”  their recent effort to show solidarity with the displaced people of northern Uganda. In April, more than 70,000 students in 15 cities across the United States slept in makeshift cardboard boxes and lived on rationed saltines and water for the night to demonstrate their concern about the crisis and call on the U.S. government to do more to help end it.

On the Hill on June 6, the group of ENOUGH advocates discussed what they—and the U.S. government—can do to help garner peace in northern Uganda in meetings with Sens.  Russ Feingold (D-WI), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), James Inhofe (R-OK), Robert Casey (D-PA), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), and Arlen Specter (R-PA).

The team of policy experts, actors, and advocates held an evening event in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where they met with nearly 60 Hill staffers for a private reception before speaking to over 400 people in the broader policy and advocacy community.  After a warm welcome from Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA), panelists discussed the current situation in political and humanitarian terms, what activists are doing to support the peace process, and how Americans can become more engaged.

The panelists reiterated the power of each individual to affect the actions of their representatives by contacting them directly. Fitzgerald and Poffenberger noted that each member of Congress with whom they met during the day expressed the need for constituent backing on these issues, emphasizing that just 10 or 20 phone calls or letters per day makes a huge difference.

Gosling urged everyone in the room to take action. “I have come to Washington for the first time in my life,” he said. “You are so young, and you seem to run this joint. All the older people we’ve met with seem to defer to you with questions. If [the people of northern Uganda] knew you are here, considering and respecting them as human beings, they would be deeply moved.”

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