A new report on two decades of conflict in northern Uganda describes a forgotten and rapidly deteriorating region. The report says only strong action by the United Nations and a real commitment by the warring parties will end the suffering of an estimated two million displaced people and some 25,000 children abducted during 20 years of conflict.
Kathy Relleen, a policy adviser in Uganda for the British charity Oxfam, says two decades of civil war in northern Uganda are nothing less than a scar on the world's conscience.
"We have seen minimal action by the international community to actually respond to this conflict and to support and encourage the government of Uganda to actually make the protection of civilians its first priority," she said. "The fact that this conflict has been allowed to continue for so long, to cost about $1.7 billion during that time. And a whole generation [has] just grown up knowing conflict."
Oxfam is just one of more than 50 non-governmental organizations that make up the coalition that authored the report, entitled "Counting the Cost: Twenty Years of War in Northern Uganda."
According to Relleen, that cost in human terms has been incredibly high and continues to this day.
"We're seeing around 901 excess deaths each week," she explained. "And that's a combination of deaths from violence through killings, but also primarily through conditions in the camps. We've seen 1.8 million people who have been forced to live in extremely squalid conditions, subject to terrible illnesses. I mean the basic facts in this report show that we're seeing deaths that should not be allowed to continue."
Since 1986, the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has fought the Ugandan government. The shadowy group, which has claimed to want an administration based on the Bible's Ten Commandments, has used brutal tactics in its campaign. These include attacks on civilians and aid workers as well as the abduction of thousands children, many of the boys have been forced to fight and many of the girls to become sex slaves.
The Ugandan army, in turn, has tried and failed to use military force to stop the war. President Yoweri Museveni has promised amnesty to rebel fighters willing to come out of the bush and even attempted to start peace negotiations through intermediaries. Still, the conflict has dragged on year after year.
This report offers its own solutions. It calls on LRA rebels to end their attacks. It also urges the Ugandan government to guarantee the protection of civilians by deploying an adequate number of troops in the north to defend the camps, protect roads and relief groups delivering aid.
The report also points the finger at the United Nations, demanding - among other things - that the Security Council immediately adopt a resolution on northern Uganda. It urges Council members to create a panel of experts to investigate the rebels and to express their disappointment about the failure of the Ugandan government to protect its own people.
Greg Puley is a policy adviser for Oxfam International in New York. He says the danger posed by the LRA is expanding.
"It is the Security Council's responsibility to respond to threats to peace and international security," he said. "And in the past few years, things have deteriorated very rapidly in northern Uganda. Just recently, the Lord's Resistance Army has crossed the border into eastern DRC [the Democratic Republic of Congo] and killed eight Guatemalan peacekeepers in the Congo. They are operating very extensively in the south of Sudan, abducting children, attacking civilians. They are having a big impact on the new peace agreement in southern Sudan. So the stakes are extremely high for the people affected by this conflict. It is not beyond the wit of the Security Council to have an appropriate response."
The release of the report coincides with a trip to Uganda and Sudan by Jan Egeland, the United Nation's emergency relief coordinator, who calls the situation in northern Uganda "intolerable." He describes LRA rebels as terrorists and says, as such, the situation calls for the immediate attention of the United Nations.
"I hope the Security Council will keep it on their agenda," said Mr. Egeland. "And I also hope the Security Council will consider my proposal for a special envoy to northern Uganda and a panel of experts to consider why this conflict has continued. Who funds and provides arms to the LRA?"
Greg Puley of Oxfam acknowledges that UN resolutions do not always translate into concrete change for people directly affected by the war. But he says Oxfam and the other groups making up the coalition that authored this report will not stop pushing for action.
"We're not going to measure success here by words on paper in New York or by words of paper by the donors or even words on paper by the [Ugandan] government itself," added Mr. Puley. "We are going to measure the success of international engagement by improvements in people's lives. And we think that must mean a peaceful solution to the conflict and practical protection for people on the ground right now."
Despite the bleak picture painted by the new coalition report, the international community has, despite repeated attacks and ongoing insecurity, helped the people of northern Uganda by providing food and relief supplies for years.
Also, an important international step was taken last year when the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued arrest warrants against LRA leader Joseph Kony and several of his deputies on war crimes and crimes against humanity.