Acholi leaders in The Hague to meet ICC over LRA probe

Leaders from war-torn northern Uganda arrived in The Hague, Netherlands, on Tuesday to appeal to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to refrain from issuing arrest warrants against the leaders of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

"The meeting follows [the prosecutor's] invitation and is in order to hear the views of the Acholi leaders about issues concerning their communities, local justice traditions and efforts to end the violence," Yves Sorokobi, spokesperson for the Office of the Prosecutor, said on Wednesday.

"We respect and admire the leaders' effort to start a dialogue between the Court and their communities," he added.

A source close to the delegation told IRIN: "The purpose of the visit is to meet the chief prosecutor [Luis Moreno-Ocampo] - letting him know that [the] ICC's intervention in northern Uganda will seriously jeopardise efforts to end the conflict in Uganda through peaceful means.

"They [the delegation] will put across our usual view that we cannot have justice without first getting the peace," the source added. "Both of those supplement each other."

The six-man delegation included the cultural head of the northern Ugandan Acholi ethnic group, Rwot David Onen Acana II, and the Roman Catholic archbishop of the northern diocese of Gulu, John Baptist Odama.

In July 2004, following a request by Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, the ICC initiated investigations into crimes committed in the war between government troops and the LRA.

Recently, the ICC announced plans to issue arrest warrants for LRA commander-in-chief, Joseph Kony, and several other high-ranking rebels.

The move has met with vehement opposition from several local leaders and human rights groups, who argue that such a step would only serve to heighten hostilities and hinder ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the rebels.

"To start war crimes investigations for the sake of justice at a time when the war is not yet over risks having, in the end, neither justice nor peace delivered," Gulu's Catholic archdiocese's Justice and Peace Commission said in a January statement.

The Ugandan government, however, said the delegation's efforts went against its position on the issue.

"The government position is very clear," Grace Akello, minister for the rehabilitation of northern Uganda, told IRIN on Wednesday. "We wanted these people prosecuted and I think that is the appropriate position that I also support."

The LRA's brutality is well documented, with civilians in the north being subjected to extensive and extreme brutality - mutilation, rape, abduction, torture and random killings are all characteristic of the rebels' operations.

However, the ICC has come under increasing pressure to also investigate possible abuses by the Ugandan army, including the recruitment of child soldiers and the rape and torture of civilians.

"The ICC prosecutor cannot ignore the crimes that Ugandan government troops allegedly have committed," Richard Dicker, director of the international justice program at Human Rights Watch, said in January.

The LRA has been at war with the Uganda government since 1988, a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more than one-and-a-half million more. Relief agencies have described it as one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.