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Friday, June 2, 2023

Truth and Reconciliation in limbo: Ugandan Cabinet Drags on Enacting Transitional Justice Policy

Seven years after the Ugandan government reached a milestone to developing a National Transitional Justice Policy, the draft still awaits cabinet approval – causing frustrations for both experts and war victims.

The draft policy for a national Transitional Justice Policy – the first of its kind for not only Africa but also the world – was a result of the 2006 Juba Peace Talks between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that led to the end of 20 years of conflict in northern Uganda.

The draft policy was developed through the Justice Law and Order Sector (JLOS), and combined various justice mechanisms that included formal criminal prosecutions, traditional justice, truth-telling and reconciliation, reparations, compensation and amnesty conditions.

Seven years later, the policy still awaits approval by cabinet.

Government response

“The [draft] policy is before cabinet. It’s their mandate to approve the policy and pass it to parliament to be debated and passed,” says Francis Atooke, Uganda’s Solicitor General. “I know the government is very eager about it [the policy]. But we have no control over cabinet. I believe cabinet is handling it, or will be soon.”

Major General Kahinda Otafiire, Uganda’s Minister for Justice and Constitutional Affairs, also says the cabinet will still consider the policy.

“We have so many policies at hand. Cabinet will sit and look at that draft [transitional justice] policy. If it’s approved, it will be forwarded to parliament for debate,” says Otafiire.

Lack of political will?

Meanwhile, some experts argue that the government’s delay in passing the draft policy demonstrates the lack of political will for promoting transitional justice in Uganda.

“Currently there is no framework for redress for victims. Because there is no policy it means that there’s no committment from leaders in Uganda to provide redress. If there was a policy in place specific people would be tasked in providing justice, but as it is justice is delayed for victims,” says Isaac Okwir Odiya of Justice and Reconciliation Project

“I want to see the government put the policy in place quickly. The people that need it are dying before it has been passed,” says Evelyn Amony of the Women’s Advocacy Network

Rising anger

“Conflict-affected communities are angry that the government still hasn’t finalised the Transitional Justice Policy. The drafting process has taken seven years. It still exists only on paper and is many years from being implemented,” says Dr Phil Clark, Great Lakes expert at SOAS University London.

“Many victims of LRA and UPDF [Uganda People’s Defence Force] crimes tell me they’ve completely given up ever finding out the truth about atrocities or receiving reparations.”

Need for justice

Many believe that Uganda desperately needs an active transitional justice programme to learn from past mistakes and to ensure those most harmed by armed groups and government forces are properly looked after.

“The needs of war victims in northern Uganda are immense,” says Clark. “In particular, these communities need major economic and psychosocial support, a task that is currently left to a patchwork of civil society organisations. A dedicated government programme of reparations, truth recovery and psychosocial support would make a massive difference for these affected communities.”

“Many northern Ugandans feel that, because the LRA has stopped committing atrocities on Ugandan soil, the government and the donor community have forgotten those who suffered through 20 years of conflict,” says Clark.

Focus is on criminals, not victims

Luke Moffett, a law lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast in Ireland, explains that the government’s focus has been more on criminal prosecutions than helping victims.

“The problem with the Ugandan government’s approach to transitional justice is that it has been dominated by the International Criminal Court and the International Crimes Division, focusing attention on only a handful of LRA commanders and neglecting the rights of the thousands of victims, who suffered atrocities from both the state and LRA,” says Moffett.

“Trials are necessary for those who organised international crimes. Truth commissions are needed to determine the causes and consequences of the violence – from British colonialism to the present day,” says Moffett.

But more focus is needed for the victims, according to Moffett.

“Reparations are a way of focusing on individual and community suffering, and ensuring that those victims affected have their harm publicly acknowledged and are provided with appropriate remedies to alleviate their daily struggles and pain.”

Too much truth?

Some experts believe the government fears implementing the policy because it will throw too much light on atrocities and crimes committed by its own troops during the conflict.

“Straight after the Juba Peace Talks, there was substantial donor interest in a National Transitional Justice Policy. It was seen as a natural extension of the Juba talks, particularly the accountability and reconciliation agreement signed by the government and the LRA,” says Clark. “The government benefited from this donor interest and used increased foreign aid to bolster the national justice sector.”

“The government got what it wanted from this process – namely funds for general issues of law and order and now is less interested in the transitional justice elements of the original plan,” says Clark.

“One key reason the government is reluctant to implement fully fledged transitional justice is that it would throw a new spotlight on crimes committed by the government throughout the LRA conflict,” Clark adds.

Action needed

So how can the current holding pattern be shifted?

“Ugandan civil society has been pressing the government for seven years to finalise the Transitional Justice Policy but with little effect,” says Clark.

While Clark believes activists should continue their advocacy and lobbying, the donors should also get re-involved.

“The donors still have substantial leverage. They need to rediscover their enthusiasm for transitional justice from seven years ago and also pressure the government to again make it a priority.”

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