With the signing of a permanent ceasefire agreement over the weekend between the Uganda government and northern rebels, more than 800 US citizens have traveled to Washington. This week they are meeting with congressional representatives and lobbying US policymakers on the critical role they think Washington must play to make the agreement a reality. Executive director Michael Poffenberger of the Resolve Uganda coalition of humanitarian groups says that international guarantees are essential in order to draw the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) fighters out of the bush and rebuild northern Uganda’s devastated infrastructure.
“In terms of the US role, it can act as a guarantor of an agreement and ensure that its leverage in the region is utilized in implementing whatever agreement is signed at the negotiations. And that includes working with the government of Uganda to directly dialogue LRA leaders and see what options are available to help them come out of the bush and includes in particular, holding the government accountable to its own promises to redevelop the northern region and address the crimes that were committed during the conflict,” he said.
Calling last weekend’s ceasefire agreement a historic step toward ending Africa’s longest running war, Poffenberger noted that Resolve Uganda’s lobbying effort this week is aimed at adding substance and commitment to the pledges and agreements hammered out.
“What we’re telling Washington is that the signing of an agreement is an important first step, but it’s only a first step. And what we need now is for the US to publicly pledge that it will be a guarantor of whatever is reached in Juba, that it will call on the United Nations to do the same thing, and that it will provide immediate funds to help displaced communities actually return to their homes of origin. There has been no investment in helping people who have been displaced by the conflict actually go home. And that means building schools, building health clinics, building water capacity because right now, people have nothing to go home to,” he explained.
After a lengthy consultation process with the local population of northern Uganda, rival negotiators agreed earlier this month on local mechanisms for putting human rights offenders and accused war criminals on trial as an alternative to outstanding International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments still pending against top rebel leaders. Resolve Uganda’s Michael Poffenberger says he thinks it is a prescription that most human rights voices find acceptable.
“We think that the breakthrough that was made in terms of negotiating local justice is absolutely innovative in a fantastic way to deal with these kinds of situations. The only one who has criticized this deal is Amnesty International. Human Rights Watch’s position has been much more flexible in that they’ve recognized that the ICC itself respects first and foremost local forms of justice and has said if those forms of justice are adequate for meeting accountability standards, then that should be the first priority. And that’s the position that we’ve taken. The key message here is that there has to be flexibility in that the first priority should be respecting the priorities of local communities, who are the ones that would have to live through the decisions to not revoke the arrest warrants if they result in a return to war,” he noted.
Only a technical agreement on disarmament and demobilization remains before the Ugandan parties face signing a final comprehensive deal. But a permanent ceasefire will not take effect until 24 hours after a final peace deal is signed. In order to accomplish this, Poffenberger says a three-point process known as DDR, or disarmament, demobilization and reintegration must be carried out to bring the rebels back from their bases in neighboring countries and welcome them back into their communities in northern Uganda. He says whether or not LRA leader Joseph Kony and his top aides will abide by a final agreement after all these measures are implemented is another important consideration for negotiators to work out.
“There have been reports that he has considered moving from his current hideout in northeastern Congo (DRC) on the border of south Sudan into actually south Central African Republic (CAR) and if that happens, in particular, if he commits any atrocities against local populations there, then action will have to be taken to protect the communities from the threat. But there’s still hope that if they use this high-level statement affirming this peace process, providing guarantors such as the international community, the United States, the EU (European Union), UN, other African countries that have been very involved in this process, if they can build confidence with Kony, show him that life after the bush is still possible, then we still do have hope that he will adhere to this agreement and actually come out and end this war,” said Poffenberger.