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Amnesty Offer for Ugandan Rebel Kony Raises Controversy


Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony has held his first meeting with officials overseeing the effort to end 19 years of devastating civil war. The presence of the elusive rebel leader, and war crimes indictee, was made possible by an offer from the Ugandan government of complete amnesty to lure Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), to the negotiating table.

Despite facing an arrest warrant on war crimes charges, Joseph Kony met with Riek Machar, the vice president of southern Sudan, and the Ugandan envoy to the region, Busho Ndinyeka, on Tuesday along the Sudanese border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Peace talks began in earnest in mid-July in Juba, southern Sudan.

The talks, mediated by Machar and the president of the government of southern Sudan and first vice president of Sudan, Salva Kiir, are viewed as the best chance to end the brutal rebellion in which tens of thousands of people have been killed and two million others displaced in northern Uganda.

"Justice must be taking place, there must be some accountability so that these abuses are not repeated," said Jemera Rone, a senior analyst with Human Rights Watch. "People want accountability. And it should not be necessary to have amnesty in an agreement to reach peace. First of all, look at southern Sudan: they entered into a peace agreement with the northern Sudanese and they did not amnesty each other."

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague has issued arrest warrants for Kony, his deputy Vincent Otti and three other top commanders in the Lord's Resistance Army, charging all with committing widespread atrocities such as rape, torture and the routine abduction of children for use as soldiers and sex slaves.

But southern Sudan President Salva Kiir defends the amnesty offer as simply the most practical way to finally secure a peace deal after many failed attempts.

"It is not that we do not care about accountability," he said. "We want everybody to be accountable for every crime that he or she commits. And I think that if these negotiations succeed and bring Joseph Kony out of the bush, it would be better than hunting for him militarily and to capture him. It will be up to the president of Uganda to pardon him or not to pardon him. But I believe if you accept to talk to somebody, there will be no reason not to give him amnesty. "

Negotiators apparently believed the granting of amnesty was key in getting the rebel leader to pursue the peace option. But Jemera Rone says there are other means that can be used to get someone like Kony to agree to talk.

"There are a lot of different ways to do negotiations and I think opening up with a concession on this kind of major issue, and one that is very controversial internationally, may not be the right way to go," Rone added.

For example, Rone says offers of security and future jobs can be used to induce the rebels to give up the fight and talk peace.

But others say that when the negotiations involve addressing hideous atrocities and those who have committed them mediators are essentially in a tight and morally uncomfortable position.

David Smock is the vice president of United States Institute of Peace and longtime Africa specialist. He says he personally does not condone the use of amnesty, but recognizes the dilemma facing those who wish to end Uganda's civil war.

"The downside of it is the impunity that it implies; that people can commit atrocities and say that they will only stop if they are given amnesty and that is a very strong argument," he noted. "There is the additional complication in this case because the International Criminal Court is involved. And the ICC says you cannot now withdraw these charges and grant amnesty. The process will go forward in an international tribunal. And to give amnesty will compromise their effectiveness and bring questions about whether the ICC can really carry out its mandate."

Still, Smock recognizes that amnesty in some shape or form has been used successfully in a number of different African conflicts - including Mozambique, Angola, and post-apartheid South Africa.