As a regional attack on the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) unfolds, all parties should respect international humanitarian law and LRA leaders accused of war crimes who surrender or are captured should be brought to trial, Human Rights Watch said today.
According to news reports on December 14, 2008, Ugandan, Congolese, and Southern Sudanese forces attacked a major LRA base in Garamba National Park in northeastern Congo. The exact objectives, potential duration, and current impact of the operation remain unknown.
"There is a history of grave abuses against civilians by every belligerent force operating in eastern Congo, including foreign armies," said Elise Keppler, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program. "All commanders involved in this operation should ensure that their troops rigorously obey the laws of war."
According to a statement issued by the military intelligence chiefs of Uganda, DRC, and Southern Sudan, the attack is a preemptive strike that aims to free hostages and capture or kill LRA leaders, including those for whom the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants in 2005 for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
As parties to the Rome Treaty establishing the ICC, the DRC and Uganda are obligated to cooperate with the court, including by apprehending fugitives. Given concerns about the practices of forces in the region, Human Rights Watch has previously urged regional and international coordination to execute the ICC's warrants with minimum risk to civilians and without excessive force.
"Joseph Kony and other LRA leaders wanted by the ICC for heinous abuses against civilians should be apprehended and brought to trial," said Keppler. "Fair, credible prosecutions for the most serious crimes committed by both sides in the northern Uganda conflict are vital to ensuring justice and a durable peace."
International humanitarian law governs the conduct of hostilities and requires all parties to avoid causing harm to civilians and their property. While enemy military objects, including combatants taking part in hostilities, are legitimate targets during conflict, international humanitarian law also prohibits the killing or injuring of persons not taking part in hostilities. In particular, an enemy combatant who is hors de combat or who surrenders may not be killed or injured. To do so would be a war crime.
The attack on the LRA follows a series of failed attempts to secure Kony's signature on a final peace agreement after more than two years of peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA, which took place in Juba, Southern Sudan, to end the conflict in northern Uganda.
While efforts to conclude the agreement were ongoing, there were credible reports that the LRA, after a period of relative calm, renewed committing atrocities in the DRC, Southern Sudan, and the Central African Republic in February. Reports from UN and local sources indicate that the LRA most recently attacked several villages in Orientale province, DRC, from mid-September through November, abducting children, killing civilians, and pillaging and burning schools and homes.
Human Rights Watch has long pressed for an end to the conflict in northern Uganda that includes peace and justice for serious crimes committed by both sides. As part of the talks, the parties agreed to pursue national trials of such crimes as a possible alternative to ICC prosecution. This is permissible under the ICC treaty, but only if certain requirements are met.
The conflict in northern Uganda, which began in 1986, has been characterized by serious crimes under international law, violations of international humanitarian law, and other human rights abuses by the LRA and, to a lesser extent, by the government forces, the Ugandan People's Defense Forces (UPDF).
The LRA has been responsible for numerous willful killings, beatings, large-scale abductions, forced recruitment of adults and children, rape of women and girls whom it assigns as "wives" or sex slaves to commanders, and large-scale looting and destruction of civilian property. Government soldiers committed extrajudicial executions, rape, torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, arbitrary detention, and forced displacement.
In December 2003, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni asked the ICC to investigate crimes committed by the LRA. Once the ICC exercises jurisdiction over crimes, as it has done in northern Uganda, the court has the authority to prosecute crimes by any individual, regardless of affiliation. Under its statute, though, the ICC has jurisdiction to prosecute only crimes committed after 2002. In July 2005, the court issued warrants for the arrest of the top five LRA leaders: Joseph Kony; Vincent Otti; Okot Odhiambo; Raska Lukwiya; and Dominic Ongwen. Lukwiya was killed in 2006 and Otti was reportedly killed in 2007. The ICC has not issued warrants for any Ugandan government officials or commanders.