“We know the numbers: 20 years and 1.6 million affected, and children pushed to terrible acts of violence. Definitely, enough is enough!” Rep. Donald Payne (D-NJ) said to a packed room of attendees last week at a panel entitled “Prospects for Peace in Northern Uganda,” the second public event sponsored by the ENOUGH campaign. ENOUGH cofounders John Prendergast and Gayle Smith sat on the panel, along with Betty Bigombe, a Senior Fellow at the U.S. Institute for Peace, and Michael Poffenberger, Executive Director of RESOLVE Uganda, a grassroots effort to end the conflict.
ENOUGH is a new joint initiative of the Center for American Progress and the International Crisis Group that aims to end ongoing crimes against humanity in Darfur, northern Uganda, and eastern Congo, and prevent mass atrocities from occurring in the future.
The Prospects for Peace in Northern Uganda event, co-hosted by Sens. Russ Feingold (D-WI) and Sam Brownback (R-KS), called for urgent U.S. diplomatic leadership to bring peace to northern Uganda. The panelists agreed that the peace process is at a critical point. A landmark agreement to cease hostilities between the Ugandan government and the messianic Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group reached during peace talks in Juba, southern Sudan, is in danger of collapsing. A return to conflict would plunge northern Uganda, southern Sudan, and potentially eastern Congo back into the cycle of massacre, rape, mutilation, and abduction that has terrorized civilians in the region for 20 years.
Yet Prendergast noted that the war in northern Uganda may be the easiest war in Africa to solve if the international community increases its commitment to the peace process. Bigombe stated that a successful outcome to the Juba talks is still possible, but Poffenberger added that “Unless a massive [diplomatic] investment is built into these negotiations, they will gradually disintegrate.”
The expiration of the agreement to cease hostilities on February 28 has lent new urgency to the need to press ahead with the Juba peace talks. As Poffenberger pointed out, six months ago the Juba process was being hailed as the best opportunity to reach a peace agreement in the war’s 20-year history. Despite its significant problems, Bigombe argued that the Juba process still has the potential to achieve a successful outcome, and that it is imperative that peace talks between the LRA and the government of President Yoweri Museveni continue.
Bigombe pointed out that the Ugandan government has every reason to seek a peace agreement. For the past several months the improved security situation in the country as a result of the agreement to cease hostilities has stimulated economic growth, and the government wants this trend to continue. “I have no doubt in my mind that the Ugandan government is committed to the peace process,” said Bigombe.
Yet Smith warned that the time for American diplomacy to spur more meaningful dialogue at Juba may be running out. “We have a window of opportunity here, but it’s not going to be open forever,” she stressed.
Prendergast focused on three major flaws of the Juba process to date: the “who, when, and how” of the peace talks. First, the participants in the talks must be able to speak for the LRA leadership. As Prendergast pointed out, a major problem with the Juba process is that it has involved LRA delegates from the diaspora who have their own agendas and often do not represent the LRA leadership in the bush. Although, as Bigombe pointed out, it is not clear whether LRA leader Joseph Kony is ready to relinquish power, without his direct involvement in the peace talks any agreement is unlikely to hold.
Kony and his top lieutenants face arrest warrants issued by the International Criminal Court, and Kony is on a U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations. “He believes that America equates him with Osama bin Laden,” explained Prendergast. “He’s delusional.” Prendergast and Bigombe agreed that for Kony and his lieutenants, the bottom line in any peace deal must include guarantees of their personal security.
Including the LRA leadership in peace talks raises questions about how much power should be offered to individuals who have perpetrated mass atrocities, and whether the promise of immunity from ICC prosecution is a morally acceptable outcome. Prendergast argued that in the interests of peace, immunity might be accompanied by traditional justice processes and other measures to ensure accountability, such as a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Prendergast’s second point—the “what” of the peace process—focused on the agenda for the peace talks, which he said should deal only with the concerns of the LRA leadership, and not attempt to resolve the longstanding grievances of the Acholi people of northern Uganda. While the government of Uganda must address their legitimate concerns and needs, the Juba talks are not the proper forum and the LRA is not a legitimate representative of the Acholi people, despite its claims to the contrary. To achieve peace in the immediate term, Prendergast said, the Juba talks should focus on the core concerns of Kony and his lieutenant. A second, longer-term initiative should then be undertaken to resolve the underlying problems in northern Uganda, including issues of land tenure, development and resettlement.
Finally, Prendergast said, international leverage must be increased to create the carrots and sticks needed to force the LRA to make a deal. He called for sanctions against individuals who finance the LRA’s insurgency, support for the ICC’s investigations, and military planning to demonstrate that the international community is serious about ending the conflict.
The need for more robust international engagement to resolve the war in northern Uganda was reiterated throughout the discussion. In particular, the panelists stressed that U.S. leadership would be critical to resolving the conflict. “If America wanted this war to end, it would have ended,” Bigombe said. While applauding the efforts of Brownback and Feingold and of Rep. Payne, the panelists expressed disappointment with the U.S.’s inattention to the conflict in northern Uganda. Poffenberger criticized the State Department’s lack of support for the Juba process, and noted that the administration has not so much as mentioned the conflict in recent high-level discussions with President Museveni.
Prendergast emphasized that U.S. involvement in Uganda need not be costly to be successful. “We don’t need billions of dollars or troops,” he said. “We need tough diplomatic effort. The cost to our treasury would literally be negligible, but the effects in Northern Uganda would be profound.”
Smith stressed that individuals can make a difference by raising awareness of the issue, which she admitted has received little attention from the U.S. media. She encouraged the audience to inform their friends and colleagues about the crisis in Uganda, and to pressure their representatives to encourage the administration to take action to help resolve the conflict.
The panelists expressed hope that the Juba process may still be revived, with more engagement by the international community and the U.S. taking a leadership role. “Peace is possible in Northern Uganda,” Prendergast concluded. Bigombe added, “There is no option but to continue to have hope, because if you have hope, you can strive to make a difference.”
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