What comes first, peace or justice?

Opinion piece in the International Herald Tribune.

GULU, Uganda —

When the interests of peace and justice conflict, there are no easy answers. In northern Uganda these issues are being starkly confronted in the ongoing peace talks between the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ugandan government.

These talks are the best opportunity so far to end a vicious guerrilla war that has lasted some 20 years and has utterly devastated northern Uganda. But difficult decisions have to be made about how best to deal with perpetrators of horrendous crimes, if the talks are to succeed.

The LRA, led by its charismatic and murderous leader, Joseph Kony, has unleashed a reign of terror over the past two decades, abducting more than 25,000 boys and girls and turning them into rebel soldiers, porters and sex slaves.

Kony’s declared objective is to rule the north in accordance with the Ten Commandments, as directed by the spirits that speak through him. But beyond this he has not espoused a clear political objective.

The Ugandan government has responded to the LRA’s campaign by unleashing its own devastation on the north, forcing over a million of the region’s Acholi inhabitants to live in camps, thus condemning them to a life removed from their fertile land, with little hope for a productive future.

According to the government’s own statistics, a thousand people a week on average are dying from conflict-induced disease and malnutrition.

The tragedy that this conflict has unleashed on the Acholi is on display all around Gulu, the main town of the north. At a center for returned LRA abductees, run by World Vision, the staff attempt the near impossible task of reintegrating some 160 formerly abducted girls, who were handed out to commanders, raped, and, having escaped, now bear children rejected by their own communities.

The nearby School of Formerly Abducted Children houses 13- and 14-year- old girls expecting the children of rebels. One by no means unique experience is that of a student who was forced to kill her brother and parents as the price of her own life; the evident trauma she suffers is beyond comprehension.

Boys who have spent much of their life in the bush, where they were forced to commit unspeakable horrors such as cutting off the lips, ears and noses of villagers deemed insufficiently supportive of the LRA, go through their daily routines with utterly blank faces.

At one of many camps within an hour’s drive of Gulu, some 45,000 Acholi have been living in squalid and unhygienic quarters for the last decade. The Ugandan government won’t allow them to return to their nearby villages.

Efforts to resolve the conflict have come to naught in the past. Recently, that has all changed – in large part because the investigation by the International Criminal Court has altered the calculations of the rebel leaders.

Last year, the ICC issued arrest warrants against Kony and four of his top commanders. This year Kony and his deputy, Vincent Otti, emerged from the bush for the first time to discuss peace, in talks mediated by the government of Southern Sudan. Their first and oft-repeated demand is that the ICC prosecutions be dropped.

If one accepts that the ICC is the main obstacle to peace – itself a premature judgment – it is difficult to argue that criminal accountability and the need to establish an effective ICC to deter future war criminals should take precedence over the immediate suffering of the northern Ugandans.

On the other hand, it is inconceivable that those directly responsible for these unspeakable crimes should escape being held accountable.

This is the dilemma that must be resolved when all other solutions to the conflict have failed.

The way forward is for the ICC prosecutor to proceed with his prosecutions. He has a mandate and should not be required to make the essentially political judgment of whether the prospects of an uncertain peace should take precedence over justice.

If such a judgment has to be made – and it should only be considered if major peace benefits are highly likely and genuine accountability and reconciliation mechanisms are put in place – then it should be made by the UN Security Council.

The Security Council has a peace and security mandate, and is expressly authorized by the ICC’s statute to put prosecutions on hold for a 12-month renewable period.

The talks have a long way to go, but if they reach the stage that peace is likely, the ICC prosecutions should be put on hold to give the millions in northern Uganda a chance to enjoy the peace they have thirsted after for 20 years.

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