Uganda: All women team visit the regions of Gulu, Kitgum, Lira and Soroti

Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice
The mission came about following the Uganda state's referral of the situation in the Northern Uganda to the ICC.
A five member international team comprising of Sara Sharratt (Costa Rica), Gabriella Mischkowski (Germany), Betty Murungi (Kenya), Brigid Inder (Executive Director, New Zealand) and Vahida Nainar (Chairperson, India) all members of The Hague based international women's human rights organisation, Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice (WIGJ) along with three members of the Kampala based women's organization, ISIS- WICCE including Ruth Ochieng (Executive Director), Jessica Nkuuhe and Elizabeth Ngororano and accompanied by Veronica Bichetero, Commissioner at the Uganda Human Rights Commission visited the conflict ridden region of Northern Uganda.
Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice (WIGJ) is an international women's NGO that monitors the International Criminal Court (ICC) from a gender perspective. In order to effectively perform its role as the gender watch of the ICC, WIGJ's objectives of the mission was broadly to meet with, speak to and consult women, victims and survivors of the conflict, meet with local NGOs and CBOs, meet with the local cultural, religious and district leadership and ascertain their analysis of the conflict, their assessment of the impact and consequences of the conflict on the lives of people in the region generally and women and girls in particular and to get an overview of their perspective on the referral of the situation in Northern Uganda to the ICC. The team successfully met its objectives thanks to the efforts of local organizers and the women members of Parliament - Honourable Jane Akwero Odwong from Kitgum, Honourable Margaret Otim Ateng from Lira and Honourable Alice Alaso from Soroti that accompanied the team in each of the district.

The visit afforded the team an insight into the complex nature of the conflict in the affected regions. It is clear that while the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) commits most of the violations and crimes, the team also heard testimonies of similar violations and crimes by the Uganda state's army, the UPDF as well as violations by the Karamanjog raiders particularly in the north eastern districts of the country. There is a wide range of crimes committed during the course of the past 18 years and continues to be committed, particularly against women, girls and children. These crimes include abductions, killings, mutilations, rape, torture, sexual slavery, enslavement and other forms of sexual violence. The conflict has forced over million people in the region to live in camps for internally displaced people.

Generally speaking, people we spoke to had very little awareness about the Uganda government's referral of the Northern Uganda situation to the ICC. On being informed, almost all of them prioritized the need for peace to return in the region first before the ICC process takes place. Some viewed ICC's investigations as potentially hampering the on-going peace talks and contradicting the prevalent amnesty laws. However, it is important to note that none of them ruled out the possibility of administering a process of justice including through the ICC once peace was established. This view was emphatic among women and other direct victims and survivors of the conflict. There was greater support for the ICC investigations among women and people in Lango and Teso regions of Northern Uganda.

The religious, cultural and some NGO leaders spoke about the need to look into other forms of redress and conflict resolutions that would be appropriate for the Acholi regions. They expressed concern about the retributive nature of justice in the formal justice mechanisms and favoured the reformative nature of the traditional systems of justice. The traditional Acholi system of justice is premised upon the offender owning up to the crimes committed, forgiveness by the victims, compensation provided to the victims by the offenders' clan and ultimate experience of remorse and shame by the offender. At the same time, it was clear that the traditional system of justice has not been in practice for decades and very few in the region were aware of this system or how it worked. Moreover, none could explain how this system would provide justice to women victims of sexual violence. This system of justice would also not work in the non-Acholi regions of Lango and Teso.

In addition to speaking to people, the team visited several IDP camps, a rehabilitation center and sites where the 'Night Commuters' go to feel safe. The conditions in the camps and the provision of support services were grossly inadequate. Most camps experience water shortage, inadequate sanitation facilities, inadequate health facilities and no facilities for any kind of counselling to recover from trauma. There seems to be no state policy in place to rehabilitate the people living in IDP camps. People living in the camps continue to live in fear of attacks from the LRA or Karamajongs or random attacks by UPDF. Women and children venturing out of the camps in search for food, water, firewood or other means of livelihood continue to be targets of the LRA attacks.

The sight of children swarming as 'Night Commuters' to safe spaces and shelters in hospitals and other spaces managed by international NGOs was heart wrenching. The team witnessed that often these children walk on their own to these places with no escorts. Violence against girl children continues unabatedly including within the shelters. The team heard of instances where men grab young girl night commuters as they walk to the safe sites and rape them. The sites are not often well-guarded leaving children vulnerable to further attacks. The team also watched children reading for their exams in these sites under inadequate light.

The situation of returning child mothers is particularly appalling. These are children who endured worst crimes of abduction, sexual slavery, torture, rape and enslavement. These children often come back with children of their own and in no position to care for them. Some of them return as HIV positive, disabled or inflicted with other kinds of health ailments. The suffering they endured during their captivity leave all of them scarred and in need for long term counselling to exist normally in their communities. There are no adequate rehabilitation centers that could provide them with services of trauma counselling, health facilities and means to continue education and/or with income generating skills. Poverty often forces some girls to leave their children with their old Parents and venture out to sell themselves to survive. The un-acceptance of these child mothers by their society and communities and the humiliation they face when called 'Kony's wives' or 'rebel killers' are a form of continued violence. Clearly Uganda has lost two generations in this conflict.

Most of the women, victims and survivors we spoke to identified Uganda state and local authorities' failure to protect and provide them with security as the cause for their sufferings. They viewed that Uganda state should provide them with compensation and make necessary provision to economically, physically and psychologically rehabilitate them.

It seems that neither the Uganda state nor the International Criminal Court cared to consult with or raise awareness about the ICC among the people of Northern Uganda. As a result, misconceptions and misinformation abound about the period from which ICC would begin investigation, the potential conflict between amnesty laws and ICC, the limited sense of justice for the community if only a few top leaders are tried by the ICC, the offender being unfairly better off in custody at the ICC than in Uganda or the bush, the possibility of ICC prosecuting children and the possibility of reparations for victims. None of the people we spoke to had seen or met any ICC officials in the field leading some to term the ICC's investigation as an 'undercover' operations.

Following our visit to the regions and our findings as above, we make the following recommendations:

To the Government of Uganda
  • Provide adequate security to the people of northern Uganda and protect them from attacks from LRA, Karamajongs and protect children from being abducted
  • Identify and punish the offenders within the army that have committed grave crimes and violations of civilians in Northern Uganda.
  • Improve and increase the provision of support services like water, sanitation, rehabilitation centers, health centers, schools around the IDP camps and in the sites securing the night commuters.
  • Introduce a comprehensive policy to physically, economically and psychologically rehabilitate the people of Northern Uganda and provide adequate resources to implement the policy.
  • Pay special attention to the needs of child abductees and returning child mothers. .Provide compensation for those affected in the conflict including those killed, injured and those who were subjected to gross sexual violence.
  • Sensitize the people of Uganda particularly those in the north, about the ICC referral and their investigations.
  • Bring the pending Uganda ICC Bill in full compliance with the Rome Statute of the ICC with particular attention to its retroactive applicability since 1986 and inclusion of all its gender mandates nationally.
Recommendations to ICC
  • Transparency in the conduct with people and groups of Northern Uganda
  • Reach out to the people and women of Northern Uganda with information, including in their native languages about the ICC, its functions and its operation in Northern Uganda.
  • Ensure that the operations in the field are conducted in a manner that is sensitive and respectful of the mass poverty in the region, of the local culture and particularly of the needs of women, victims and survivors of the conflict.
  • Ensure that the violations committed against women during the conflict are included within the investigations and prosecutions of the ICC.
  • Remain mindful of the views and perspective of the people of Northern Uganda about the referral and review the timing of the investigation in an assessment whether any investigation at the current time would serve the overall interest of justice.
Vahida Nainar
Chair, Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice

Brigid Inder
Executive Director, Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice

Betty Murungi
Board Member, Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice

Sara Sharratt
Member of Advisory Council, Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice

Gabriella Mischkowski
Member of Advisory Council, Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice

Honourable Jane Akwero Odwong, MP Kitgum District

Honourable Margaret Otim Ateng MP , Lira District

Honourable Alice Alaso MP, Soroti District

Veronica Bichetero
Commissioner, Uganda Human Rights Commisssion

Ruth Ochieng
Director, Isis-WICCE/Member, Women Initiatives for Gender Justice

Jessica Nkuuhe
Associate Director, Isis-WICCE

Elizabeth Ngororano
Board Member, Isis-WICCE