- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The most-promising peace talks yet, to end more than two decades of brutal civil war in northern Uganda, are near total collapse for lack of a mediator. For the past six months, Sudan has hosted negotiations between the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government in the southern Sudan city of Juba to bring Africa’s longest-running war to a close. The conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives since 1987 and displaced 1.7 million Ugandans.

But rebel leaders recently withdrew from the talks, citing security concerns after Sudanese President Omar Bashir vowed to “rid Sudan of the LRA.” The rebels now insist on a new host country and mediator.

Kenya and South Africa have been designated by LRA officials as acceptable third parties to mediate talks, but neither has shown any intention to get involved.

As chief mediator, Vice President Riek Machar of southern Sudan was largely responsible for getting both sides to sign an Aug. 26 cease-fire. He has reached out to rebel chief Joseph Kony, currently hiding in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other parties to return to the negotiating table in Sudan, but the LRA leaders refuse.

“We will never go back to Juba, no matter how long they give us. Even if they apologize, nothing they can do can make us go back there,” chief LRA negotiator Martin Ojul said in January. “We are still committed to peace talks, and we’re going to find another venue.”

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni insists Juba will remain the venue for peace talks, regardless of rebel demands. His northern regional army spokesman told the Daily Monitor newspaper that if LRA rebels return to Uganda as second-in-command Vincent Otti has suggested, “we will welcome them with a baptism of fire.”

Mr. Otti told the Reuters news agency on Feb. 6 by telephone from his hide-out on the Sudan-Congo border: “If they cannot find another venue, then I will go back to my country and start war.” Some observers say this may be calculated brinkmanship.

Deadline missed

Under the August cease-fire the LRA signed with Gen. Museveni’s government, rebel fighters had until the end of last month to assemble at two camps in southern Sudan. Uganda says the rebels are not cooperating, while the rebels say they fear for their safety and do not want to go to the camps.

Complicating matters are outstanding indictments on war-crimes charges by the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague against LRA leaders, including Kony and Mr. Otti.

The LRA earned a reputation for cruelty toward civilians, slicing off body parts of victims and drugging abducted children to fight in their ranks. Child soldiers are said to account for some 90 percent of LRA forces, and fear of being kidnapped has turned thousands of children in rural Uganda into “night walkers” who travel miles on foot to camps to avoid abduction.

Top rebels charged

The ICC issued arrest warrants for five senior rebel commanders in October 2005 on 33 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, enslavement and forced enlistment of children.

Kony, a former altar boy and self-anointed spiritual guru of the LRA, claims to have taken up arms to defend the northern Acholi people against purported oppression from the Museveni regime when it came to power in 1986. He rejects charges that he killed or enslaved children, saying: “We don’t have any children. We have only combatants.”

However, the LRA has for more than 20 years failed to present any clear political agenda to end the suffering of people in the region, thousands of whom live in squalid refugee camps.

The threat of criminal warrants and military pressure were vital in compelling LRA leaders to emerge from the bush for peace talks. But “balancing the need for accountability with the requirement to offer an inducement to the indicted leaders to make peace is not easy,” observed a recent report of the International Crisis Group.

LRA leaders demand that all charges against them be dropped as a precondition to resume negotiations. Even Gen. Museveni has voiced his disapproval of the ICC indictments, pledging full amnesty to Kony and his commanders if they agree to peace.

But unrelenting officials at The Hague say Uganda must arrest the five defendants to avoid violating the Rome Statute, the founding proviso of the ICC, which Uganda ratified more than four years ago.

Deputy prosecutor Fatou Bensouda insisted in August: “Countries that have an obligation to execute the arrest warrants will do so.”

However, the International Crisis Group said in September that an agreement to suspend the indictments may be the only way to bring lasting peace to northern Uganda. Asylum for indicted commanders in a country not party to the Rome Statute could be a viable option, the group suggested.

Others support asylum

Despite a botched U.N. operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo in January 2006 to seize Kony that claimed the lives of eight peacekeepers, some U.N. officials have also endorsed the asylum proposal. Jan Egeland of Norway, departing U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, has called the warrants “a stumbling block to peace.”

Aid organizations note that since the truce took effect, more than 230,000 people have returned to their homes to resume normal lives. “These talks are the best chance for peace in 20 years,” according to Oxfam, originally a British development, advocacy and relief agency seeking to end to poverty worldwide. “It is crucial both parties do everything within their power to end the [Uganda] insurgency.”

It added that 1.4 million people remain in Uganda refugee camps, and a new humanitarian crisis could reverse months of progress unless international pressure were brought to bear on LRA leaders.

Other groups say the United States has not done enough to move peace talks forward and could inspire confidence on both sides if it took a more active role.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormick said Feb. 1 that the LRA’s demands to change the mediator and venue of talks “will only delay peace in the region and further the suffering of displaced northern Ugandans.”

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