- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

KAMPALA, Uganda - When President Yoweri Museveni approached the International Criminal Court in December 2003 to try the leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army for atrocities in northern Uganda, he viewed it as a way to end a civil war that has displaced about 1.6 million people.

In April last year, ICC chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo announced there was sufficient cause to open an investigation into the LRA, which both Uganda and the United States consider to be a terrorist group.

A few top leaders may face arrest this year when Mr. Moreno-Ocampo completes his work. However, those who stand to benefit the most from peace, northern Ugandans of the Acholi tribe , want the ICC to drop the case.

“If they arrest the leaders, then what about the others who are still in the bush,” asked Damascus Labeja of Gulu in northern Uganda, who was kidnapped by the LRA as a teenager. “They won’t come out.”

Mr. Labeja isn’t sympathetic toward the LRA; few are in the northern region most affected by the guerrilla war that began in 1986. A group of Acholi politicians, bishops and cultural leaders echoed Mr. Labeja’s concerns when they met with Mr. Moreno-Ocampo and other officials at The Hague this month.

Uganda is one of 98 countries that have endorsed the ICC, joining in June 2002, a month before the statute creating it came into force.

The Acholi delegation said issuing ICC indictments against LRA leaders would stop the peace process now under way and undermine an amnesty law that provides money and other benefits to those who lay down their arms.

Mediator Betty Bigombe, a World Bank consultant and former Ugandan Cabinet minister, remains in contact with LRA leaders, said David Adana II, paramount chief of the Acholi people. More than a dozen rebels, including a commander, surrendered to the Ugandan army this week.

“To issue a warrant of arrest now, it doesn’t present the possibility for ending the conflict as quickly as possible,” said Mr. Adana.

Since 1986, the LRA and its leader, Joseph Kony, a warlord who thinks he’s a messiah, have tried to overthrow the Museveni government and, they say, rule according to the Ten Commandments.

Since then, the LRA kidnapped more than 20,000 children to serve as soldiers, sex slaves and baggage carriers, according to the United Nations. The Ugandan army has pursued and battled the rebels, who move between northern Uganda and southern Sudan, but failed to destroy them.

While both the Ugandan government and the Acholi share the goal of ending the civil war, they disagree on the means. The Acholi, whose children fill the LRA ranks, favor dialogue with the rebels over force. Forgiveness and reconciliation are cornerstones of their culture, which allows former killers to rejoin the community.

Mr. Adana, their leader, said the Acholi do not oppose the ICC, but they want to exhaust their options before letting the prosecutor take over.

“When the warrant of arrest is on, there’ll be nothing else that can be done,” he said. “The ICC doesn’t have an army. Neither does it have police. Kony has been elusive. He has been evading [Ugandan forces] for the last 18 years.”

Mr. Adana said Mr. Moreno-Ocampo, the ICC chief prosecutor, is now mindful of developments in northern Uganda and doesn’t want to jeopardize a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

He called The Hague visit a success because he said the prosecutor will soon invite other war-affected tribes for talks on the situation, ensuring that justice is not about the Acholi only.

Mr. Moreno-Ocampo has issued a statement saying the ICC recognizes the role that national and local leaders can play in achieving peace and justice, and he said he is sensitive to their efforts to promote dialogue to reach that goal.

But he did not say he was slowing down his pursuit of the LRA. Instead, the prosecutor said he is focusing on those “who bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities committed in the region.”

This stance of the ICC satisfies the Ugandan government, which has adopted what it calls a multipronged approach to defeat the LRA and bring peace to the north. It includes military force, peace talks, war-crimes indictments and amnesty.

Internal Affairs Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, the government’s negotiator with the LRA, said the Acholi leaders are free to express their views, but the government backs the ICC’s work.

On the other hand, Mr. Museveni has said that if Mr. Kony accepted amnesty, he would tell the ICC that Uganda has solved its problem.

Citing progress on the military and diplomatic fronts, more public support for the peace process and the continuing surrender of rebels, Mr. Rugunda said he is optimistic the war will end soon.

“The situation has qualitatively improved for peace in northern Uganda,” he declared.

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