What to Do About Joseph Kony

Unless the peace talks in Juba directly address LRA rebel leader Joseph Kony’s security concerns, peace will remain elusive in northern Uganda.

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The fate of a war that has crossed three international borders, displaced nearly two million people, and created the highest child abduction rate in the world hinges on the fate of one man: Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Negotiations ongoing in Juba, southern Sudan, are addressing a wide array of issues, but until there is agreement about how to deal with Kony and his top deputies — all indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity — there will be no peace deal.

The peace talks in Juba — Uganda’s best chance for negotiating a deal since the conflict started — have been on hold for the last three months to allow the Ugandan Government and LRA to consult and prepare for the crucial next stage, negotiations on specific domestic justice mechanisms. The parties will attempt to reach a deal that satisfies both the ICC, given its arrest warrants against Kony and his top deputies, and the LRA’s victims, who want both peace and accountability for returning LRA commanders who brutalized northern Uganda for twenty years.

The time to strike a deal is now. President Museveni has issued a January deadline for a negotiated settlement before he would resume military action. Last month, the Ugandan and Congolese governments signed a security agreement that might facilitate this. Furthermore, internal fighting within the LRA and recent high-level defections have weakened the rebels. A credible military option — involving regional states, the UN missions in Sudan and Congo, and governments willing to offer equipment and personnel — combined with a sustained, high-level diplomatic push directed at Kony, might provide the essential ingredient and leverage to get the job done.

Peace with justice for the LRA leadership is ideal, but serious obstacles remain. To satisfy the ICC’s high standard, Kony may have to be prosecuted in a Ugandan court. Kony is highly unlikely to accept this option given his mistrust of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, his doubt that a fair trial is possible in Uganda, and his aversion to accountability. To return home, Kony would have to live under continual threat or fear of revenge attacks by civilians and submit to traditional justice ceremonies he has consistently rejected in the past. Tough tradeoffs between peace and justice may be the unavoidable and justifiable price of final agreement that can end twenty years of conflict and remove a serious security threat to the region.

During recent informal discussions with Kony, it has become clear that his main concern is finding a credible way to guarantee his own future. The Juba peace process must address these security and livelihood concerns. Unfortunately, negotiations in Juba have spent the better part of a year talking with other people about different issues. Kony should be presented with three clear, credible choices:

  • Accountability: if Kony wants to come back to northern Uganda, he must face serious domestic justice mechanisms that meet international standards and local needs. Prosecution in a special tribunal will be necessary, but alternative sanctions and traditional justice may be incorporated as punishments in place of lengthy imprisonment.
  • Asylum: in the interests of peace and to allow northern Uganda to finally awake from the twenty year nightmare of LRA terror, relocating Kony to another country may be the best solution. The United Nations Security Council has the power to defer the ICC’s investigation for renewable one-year increments, allowing such an arrangement to remain conditional on Kony’s continued compliance with the agreement. This could be presented as an exile scenario so that it can be part of the accountability efforts being crafted in a possible peace deal.
  • Arrest: a coordinated regional strategy to apprehend Kony should the peace talks collapse is necessary both as contingency planning and as negotiating leverage. Kony will only accept local accountability if the alternative is lifetime imprisonment by the ICC in The Hague.

The U.S. and EU have important roles to play in each of these options. U.S. and European leadership in the Security Council may be necessary if a local accountability package falls short of the ICC’s standards or if asylum becomes necessary. The U.S. should make clear that the LRA will be taken off the State Department’s Terrorist List if Kony signs and implements a peace agreement. Furthermore, the U.S. and EU can provide useful intelligence and logistical support for attempts to arrest Kony if the peace process does not yield an agreement. Finally, the U.S. could provide the peace partner that President Museveni needs, and could give Kony the requisite reassurances that he will not be hunted as a criminal or terrorist if he signs and implements a peace deal.

Ultimately, there is a solution. Third country asylum or exile will remove Kony from the scene of the crimes against humanity, and his calculation as to whether to accept asylum can be influenced by a credible multilateral military strategy aimed at his arrest if he chooses not to make a deal. Negotiations can continue around local accountability mechanisms, but it is highly unlikely that Kony will accept such a fate, given his unshakeable mistrust of the Ugandan Government. Quickly devising a security and livelihoods package for the LRA leadership in a third country, leveraged by the option of the use of force to apprehend the leadership if they do not agree to a deal, will yield the best opportunity for a solution that the people of northern Uganda have seen in twenty years.

John Prendergast is Co-Chair of the ENOUGH Project.

The mission of ENOUGH, a joint initiative founded by the International Crisis Group and the Center for American Progress, is to end crimes against humanity in Darfur, northern Uganda and eastern Congo, and to prevent future mass atrocities wherever they may occur. For more information, visit

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