ICC indictments to affect northern peace efforts, says mediator

The decision by the International Criminal Court's (ICC) to issue arrest warrants for the leaders of the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has changed the dynamics of ongoing peace talks between the Uganda government and the rebels, the mediator said.

"You can no longer talk to the LRA as before, the dynamics have changed. The situation is different and I would not like to talk to the LRA now because the ICC has not yet given me details of the warrant," Betty Bigombe told IRIN on Monday.

Speaking from the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, Bigombe, who for months has tried to persuade both sides to end the war through dialogue said she had not decided what the way forward should be.

She, however, would need to make "some adjustments" in the way she had been working.

"There is no doubt I need to make some adjustments, but the situation has been made difficult by the warrant. I have talked to the prosecutor [Luis Moreno-Ocampo] to let me know the details but they have not gotten back to me yet," she said.

The ICC last week issued five indictments for LRA commanders - the first ever to be issued by the court. The ICC has, since 2004, been investigating war crimes committed in the 19-year-old conflict between the LRA and the Uganda government.

The LRA insurgency has devastated large areas of northern and eastern Uganda and driven up to 1.4 million people from their homes into internally displaced persons' (IDP) camps.

Bigombe managed to win some trust from both the LRA and the government as a mediator. Backed by the governments of Britain, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United States, she pitched camp in the region to mediate the peace process that had been started by religious leaders in northern Uganda.

She came close to brokering a successful ceasefire agreement between the two sides late last year, when she organised the first face-to-face meeting in a decade between a senior government minister and a dozen LRA officials in the bushes in Kitgum district, some 450 km north of the capital, Kampala.

However, last minute hitches saw the attempt fail.

Bigombe said she had been trying to persuade the LRA leadership to end the rebellion and accept an offer of amnesty from the government. However, the ICC’s move has scuttled the amnesty option for the leaders accused of a number of atrocities, including the kidnap and murder of children.

Amnesty in jeopardy

The head of the Uganda Amnesty Commission (UAC), a statutory body set up by the government to give a blanket amnesty to surrendering rebels, also said the decision by the international court had left their work in "total confusion".

"Since the commission started its work, we have based our sensitisation on the blanket amnesty and the impact has been tremendous. But now the issue has changed and we also have to deal with the uncertainty the ICC warrants have brought about," Peter Onega, the UAC chairman, told IRIN on Monday.

Onega said the warrants would scare away willing rebels and frustrate the commission's efforts to negotiate for ex-rebels' return.

"It means we have to start afresh to sensitise them [the rebels] that the warrant is only for a few people and the rest are free to come back home," he said.

"The statute establishing the ICC overrides the national laws and the court may decide to issue other warrants of arrest for people we have even issued amnesty to. Where does this leave the amnesty statute, where we derive our mandate?" he added.

The indictment, he added, would give the LRA leadership the tools to consolidate the rebel ranks.

"They will be at liberty to tell these people that 'this is just the beginning, don't think we are the only ones wanted by the ICC - your turn is coming' and very few will come out [of the bush] if such a message was driven home," he said.

However, some leaders in northern Uganda have supported the ICC on the grounds that the rebels were given enough time to give up fighting but had not taken up the chance.

"I have told people that [LRA leaders] Kony and Otti will never talk peace. The ICC is right to issue the arrest warrants. The time given was enough but they never took advantage of it, so the ICC is right in issuing out the warrants," Walter Ochora local council chairman for the northern district of Gulu, said.

Kony still eligible for amnesty

Onega said if his commission was to follow the laws in Uganda, the five indicted people were still eligible for the blanket amnesty. He expressed the fear that the ICC's decision could only encourage more atrocities because the LRA leadership could act as "desperately as a wounded buffalo".

"The ICC should have known all the consequences before they issued the warrants. They should have also considered another issue in all this - reconciliation. Does the taking of only five people for prosecution at The Hague bring about reconciliation among the divided Acholi [northern ethnic group] people? The warrants are not any good for national unity if you have people who will go to testify against others," Onega added.

The LRA is notorious for abducting children for use as soldiers, porters or sex slaves. A recent report by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said out of an estimated 25,000 children abducted by the LRA since the conflict began 19 years ago, approximately 7,500 were are girls, 1,000 of whom had conceived during captivity.

The report stated that over the past three years, the number of IDPs in the conflict-affected districts (Gulu, Kitgum, Pader, Lira, Apac, Soroti, Katakwi and Kaberamaido) was estimated to have risen from 550,000 to 1.4 million due to insecurity.

The report added that the conflict had perpetuated a severe humanitarian crisis in the north, with the rights of children and women to access basic health services, water, primary education and security going largely unfulfilled.