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Uganda: War Crimes Trials Face Challenges

(Cape Town, January 16, 2012) – Legal and organizationalissues that have emerged during Uganda’s first war crimes prosecution posechallenges for Uganda in seeking to ensure justice for victims of the mostserious crimes, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.Uganda’s early experience may provide relevant information to other countriesseeking to hold domestic trials for serious crimes committed in violation ofinternational law – genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

Inrecent years, there has been increasing focus on making it possible fornational courts to conduct trials of serious crimes. In particular, statesparties to the International Criminal Court (ICC) have devoted greater attention to complementarity– the principle that national courts should be the primary vehicles forprosecuting genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

The29-page briefing paper, “Justice for Serious Crimes before National Courts:Uganda’s International Crimes Division,” provides a snapshot of progress from Uganda’scomplementarity-related initiative: the International Crimes Division (ICD).The ICD is a division of the High Court with a mandate to prosecute genocide,war crimes, and crimes against humanity, in addition to crimes such asterrorism. Based on research by Human Rights Watch in Uganda inSeptember 2011, this briefing paper analyzes the ICD’s work to date, theobstacles it has encountered, and challenges both for the future work of theICD and for national accountability efforts more broadly.

“Nationalwar crimes trials should provide accountability for crimes committed inUganda,” said Elise Keppler, senior international justice counsel at HumanRights Watch. “However, outstanding questions remain for the InternationalCrimes Division if it is to succeed in reaching its potential as a forum fordelivering meaningful justice.”

Thebriefing paper is part of a body of work on complementarity by Human RightsWatch, which includes research relating to Bosnia, Democratic Republic ofCongo, Guinea, and Kenya.

Theone case now before the ICD involving war crimes is that of Thomas Kwoyelo, a member of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)rebel group. The case is challenging the very legal framework within which theICD operates, Human Rights Watch said. Its outcome is likely to be decisive asto whether cases involving serious crimes committed by LRA members during thetwo-decade conflict in Northern Uganda with the Ugandan government can proceed.

Thechallenges include whether Uganda’s Amnesty Act will ultimately bar casesagainst members of the LRA, and whether Uganda’s law implementing the ICC’sRome Statute can be used to prosecute crimes from the conflict.

Thepaper focuses on the importance of credible justice, including accountabilityfor crimes committed both by the LRA and the Ugandan armed forces, and the needto provide adequate support and time for the accused to properly prepare adefense.

Thebriefing paper also evaluates the impact of structural inadequacies in the ICD,such as frequent rotation of staff on and off the division and the lack of anadequate witness protection and support scheme.

“Theexperience of the International Crimes Division may offer insights to otherstates facing the task of prosecuting war crimes before domestic courts,”Keppler said.

TheUgandan government should ensure that crimes committed by both the LRA and theUgandan army are addressed and that legal obstacles are surmounted, HumanRights Watch said.

Donorshave provided funding for the ICD, including for such significant needs aspromoting protection of witnesses and providing interpreters. But other crucialareas ­– notably defense representation – remain underfunded.

Donorsshould review their support to ensure that funding is adequate. Donors shouldalso highlight the importance of the ICD addressing crimes committed by boththe LRA and the Ugandan army.

“TheUgandan government will have to provide uncompromised backing for the ICD toensure fair, effective trials,” Keppler said. “Donors also have a critical roleto play, not only by funding key needs, but also by stressing the importance ofjustice for crimes committed by both sides.”

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