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A Poisoned Chalice? Local Civil Society and the International Criminal Court’s Engagement in Uganda
International Refugee Rights Initiative
January 2012
(…) This paper is the first of a series of papers developed by the International Refugee Rights Initiative in collaboration with local partners in Africa reflecting local perspectives on experiences with international justice. (…)
(…) When the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced in February 2004 that its first investigation would be alleged war crimes committed by commanders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group operating in northern Uganda, the stakes were high. The Court was a new institution with the somewhat formidable mandate of ending impunity for the worst crimes throughout the world, and northern Uganda was its first situation. International human rights NGOs had spent years advocating for the Court and were now desperate for it to succeed: the LRA seemed a perfect target.  Its notorious leader, Joseph Kony, abducted and abused children, carried out atrocities of the most appalling nature, and had a cultish aura that seemed to negate any rational political agenda. In addition, the Court was responding to a request from the government of Uganda to investigate the LRA, which presented it with the opportunity to test out its mandate in the relatively uncontroversial waters of a state referral.
The events that followed took everyone by surprise. Despite no prior warning of the announcement – which, significantly, was made jointly by the  ICC Prosecutor, Luis MorenoOcampo and President Museveni at a press conference – the ICC’s involvement in northern Uganda was met with immediate and widespread condemnation by Ugandan civil society. (…)
(…) An increasingly heated debate between national and international NGOs developed over the course of the following months, and seven years later many of the issues that lie at the heart of it remain unresolved. This debate highlighted the polarisation that was emerging between international understandings of  the appropriateness of different forms of justice (as represented by the ICC and a number of international human rights organisations speaking out in support of the Court’s actions) and local understandings (as represented by the majority of local human rights and civil society organisations, and community leaders in the north).
The vigorous exchange that followed significantly undermined the areas of mutual understanding and common ground that could have led to a healthy discussion on ending the war and creating an environment of sustainable peace  – and the role of pursing accountability for international crimes. Instead, it set up a false distinction between the demands of justice and the demands of peace; it raised questions regarding the basis for the relationship between local and international organisations; and it led to concerns about who has the right to represent the views of victims, the intended beneficiaries of justice. This polarisation only increased with the issuing of arrest warrants in 2005, which further entrenched positions.
Subsequent efforts have been made to bridge some of these divides. (…)
(…) However, serious rifts remain, much damage has been done, and there continues to be inadequate space for debate: even at the Rome Statute Review Conference held in Kampala in June 2010, these issues remained largely implicit rather than explicit, suggesting the extent to which room for debate and discussion remains highly restricted.

This paper, therefore, seeks to begin a dialogue that can build on an honest appraisal of the ICC’s Uganda engagement and the implications of the acrimonious encounter between the Court and its international justice constituency, and local civil society. It focuses on the initial months and years of the ICC’s activities, recognising that a deeper exploration of the dynamics that created division and tension is necessary for the success of future international justice interventions. Therefore this paper begins to explore a number of questions. Has the Court drawn appropriate lessons from the experience? What lessons have been learned by civil society organisations  – both local and international? What more needs to be done to ensure less divisive engagements in the future? (…)

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