12 February is the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, also known as “red hand day”. The verdict issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Dominic Ongwen last week reminds us that this plague also hit Uganda during the darkest years of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda. The mixed feelings his conviction triggered among the population highlights the moral and legal dilemma of judging a child …even when he’s grown up. The time is now ripe to embrace reconciliation as it is key to the healing process in northern Uganda.
If international days mostly remain incognito, the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers is particularly important in Uganda, especially a few days after the conviction of Dominic Ongwen. This former LRA top commander, has been found guilty of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including the forced conscription of children during armed conflict. No need to run through the long list of his gruesome misdeeds to imagine their cruelty and the pain of the victims and their families.
He is the first ever Ugandan standing trial before the International Criminal Court. His case was brought before this Court in The Hague by the Ugandan authorities in 2004 to help them bring justice for the crimes of the LRA war. This conviction represents a breakthrough for international justice in Uganda and the world. It also represents an important milestone for international law as it sets a precedent on how a former child soldier can be tried.
Many victims and their families had been waiting for this judgement for years. Most of them have welcomed the decision with great relief.
This trial and this long awaited judgement is of paramount importance for the victims who have suffered his crimes first-hand. His conviction can’t be considered as an end, but should rather be seen as a first step to recognize their pain.
We can’t turn a blind eye on what is still needed towards reconciliation in the region. The international justice principles are based on accountability and criminal sanctions, which is quite different from the values of the traditional Acholi justice system (Mato Oput) based on forgiveness and social restoration. Moreover, the ICC being based far away in The Hague makes its justice little tangible for the victims. Some victims associations are of the view that neither an international court such as the ICC, nor a national court such as the International Crime Division of the High Court, where another LRA warlord, Thomas Kwoyelo, is being tried at the moment, or even the Ugandan Amnesty Commission should try LRA crimes on behalf of the affected communities.
Few voices call for at least partial amnesty based on the fact that he was abducted as a young boy, forced into violence and brainwashed to become a uncompromising LRA warrior. Some also state that considering these extenuating circumstances might be a better way to contribute to the healing process. However, the judges dismissed these considerations mainly because he had refused to come clean once an adult. He had kept on committing these offences and his behaviour was reported to be extremely violent even with nobody watching over his shoulder. The Judges therefore ruled that there are no grounds that exclude the responsibility of Dominic Ongwen in the committed crimes.
No doubt these arguments will influence not only the sentence to be pronounced in the coming months but also the redress, reparations and compensations for the victims as well as the very sensitive question of the social reintegration of the former child soldiers who have been granted amnesty.
These diverging opinions among civil society, victims and experts raise many questions: What is the place of past inflictions in judging grown up child soldiers? Dominic Ongwen was abducted when he was 14 and then rose through the rebel ranks to become one of their warlords. Can a child, fallen into the hands of the rebels as a victim, be held accountable for these atrocities? How to deal with their guilt? How can one judicial trial balance conflicting claims of victimhood (that of Ongwen vs that of his victims)? This shows the complexity of judging a victim turned perpetrator, especially a child.
A much needed healing process
The above questions may never be solved once and for all, but the answer most certainly has to do with expanding our definition of justice in order to encompass more than its prosecutorial form.
Today, it seems obvious to condemn the use of child soldiers in conflicts. This has not always been the case though and many victims are still living proof here in the country. Thousands of Ugandan former child soldiers have become adults now. Their scars are still deep, even after so many years. Dominic Ongwen and his fellow child soldiers are a stigma from the past in a post LRA Uganda. He is the face of this disturbing phenomenon of recruiting, training and using child soldiers during those violent years.
Thanks to civil society organisations, an important peace and reconciliation process has been initiated in northern Uganda. Organisations like ‘Avocats Sans Frontières’ (ASF), funded inter alia by the Belgian government, work on bringing justice closer to the victims. They do so by walking the victims and the population through the cumbersome procedures of national and international justice or simply by broadcasting the audiences of the trial on screens in the affected communities. Thanks to their victim-based approach, they help internally displaced populations during the conflict recover their land rights or help victims claim reparations for example. Other important actors in the healing process are the ‘Centre for Children in Vulnerable Situation’ (CCVS), set up by 3 Belgian universities to promote psychosocial well-being by providing psychotherapeutic support services to war-affected children, youth, their families and communities living in vulnerable situations ; and WAPA, the ‘War-Affected People’s Association’, which fights against the use of children in armed conflicts and supports their reintegration into a stronger community.
In the same vein, the new National Transitional Justice Policy adopted by Uganda in 2019 has to be welcomed. In a nutshell, transitional justice is the response to systemic or widespread violations of human rights. It includes a range of processes and mechanisms aimed at ensuring accountability, serving justice and achieving reconciliation. It seeks recognition for victims and promotes possibilities for peace and democracy. All of these mechanisms are highly needed in post LRA Uganda.
As Nelson Mandela once said: “ True reconciliation does not consist in merely forgetting the past … reconciliation is a spiritual process which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people”. Post LRA Uganda is now at a crossroads: mature enough to have a wise and moderate look at its past, a new pioneer in terms of international law and engaged in transitional justice. May these conditions coincide to ensure a peaceful Uganda in the years to come.
H.E. Rudi Veestraeten
Ambassador of Belgium
On behalf of the European Union Heads of Mission in Uganda.
The author is the ambassador of Belgium on behalf of the European Union Heads of Mission in Uganda
Breaking: Three community land rights defenders from Kawaala have been arrested.
Breaking: Three community land rights defenders from Kawaala have been arrested.
By Witness Radio team
Police at Old Kampala Regional Police Headquarter have arrested three of the six community land rights defenders from Kawaala Zone II, Kampala suburb, and preferred a fraud charge before being released on bond.
Kasozi Paul, Busobolwa Adam, and Kabugo Micheal got arrested on their arrival before being taken inside interrogation rooms. They were questioned from 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM local time and later recorded their statements.
Section 342 of the Penal Code states that forgery is the making of a false document with the intent to defraud or deceive. It carries a three year imprisonment on conviction.
According to lawyers representing victims, defenders are arrested on the orders of the Deputy Resident City Commissioner (RCC) in charge of Rubaga Division Anderson Burora and accused them of fraud.
Resident City Commissioner is a representative of the president in the Capital City at the division level.
The charges are a result of continued resistance by Kawaala community seeking fair compensation and resettlement before Lubigi drainage channel is constructed. Since the first COVID outbreak in 2020, the victim defenders and others have been leading a pushback campaign to stop forced evictions by a multimillion dollars Kampala Institutional and Infrastructure Development Project (KIIDP-2) funded by World Bank. Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) is the implementor of the project.
This project first impacted Kawaala Zone II around 2014, when a channel diversion was constructed. The current planned expansion will widen that channel and require forced evictions across an area at least 70 meters wide and 2.5 km long.
The New Vision, a local daily of June 21st, 2022, quoted Burora accusing Kasozi Paul, one of the community land rights defenders from Kawaala Zone II of being a fraudster.
Witness Radio – Uganda challenges the deputy RCC Burora to produce evidence that pins the defenders on fraud instead of criminalizing the work of defenders.
“We warn Mr. Burora against using police to harass defenders who have openly opposed a project which is causing negative impacts on the community” Adong Sarah, one of the lawyers representing the defenders said.
The defenders got released on police bond as they are expected to report back to the police on Monday, the 18th of July 2022 at 11:00 AM local time.
Signs of harmful projects with financing from development institutions are spotted in Uganda…
By Witness Radio Team.
The growth of a country is discerned by great leaders and innovators who see opportunities out of darkness and transform their areas from nothing to success. Those are great leaders whose interest is to see the developments in their countries and the well-being of their citizens.
Every single day, countries all over the world receive investors that acquire loans, grants, and donations to implement mega projects that are seemingly expected to develop host countries. countries and investors borrowing the money Often, countries and investors portray how these projects improve the livelihood of the browbeaten, au contraire, they have left many broken families, poor-dirty homesteads, and shattered dreams.
Uganda is one of those countries, whose citizens have paid a price for reckless or unsupervised and profit-led international investment. In a bid to implement its industrial policy, the country has welcomed both foreign and local investors with interests in the fields of extraction, industrial agriculture, carbon credit tree plantation, mining, infrastructural projects, and many others.
It has received billions of dollars from different financiers including commercial banks, Pension Funds, and International Development Finance Banks or institutions, among others. For instance, the World Bank has invested more than 20 Billion Dollars since 1963 and currently
Every project comes with its own chilling story. More often their stories are unheard by the World. Witness Radio – Uganda surveyed some projects in Uganda. This study revealed agony, illegal evictions, abject poverty, environmental degradation, and loss of life among others, as some of the consequences suffered by the would-be beneficiaries of these international funded projects across the country.
In the capital of Uganda, Kampala, over 1750 families were forcefully evicted from a city suburb, Naguru, for Naguru- Nakawa housing estates. 11 years down the road the project that was highly hyped is to take off on the grabbed land. Pleas from the victims of the eviction to regain their land have all fallen on deaf ears.
About 80km away from Kampala is the island district of Kalangala surrounded by the World’s second-largest lake, Victoria, and known for palm growing. When the palm-oil project was introduced to residents they were given the impression that it would improve their livelihoods and create job opportunities. Instead, it has dumped thousands into poverty after their land was grabbed by BIDCO, a Wilmer international-funded project. People lost land and now work on plantations as casual laborers. The neighboring communities are accusing BIDCO workers of sexual and gender-based violence.
In the South-Western District of Kiryandongo, multinational companies including Agilis Partners Limited, Kiryandongo Sugar Limited, and Great Seasons SMC Limited with funding from The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), The Department for International Development (DFID) of the United Kingdom, and Common Fund for Commodities among other financiers are forcefully evicting more than 35,000 people. The eviction has been on since 2017.
Workers that worked on a World Bank Project in Soroti, in the far east of the country, are accused of sexually harassing minors. Several young girls were defiled and left pregnant. Despite the government being aware of this none of the pedophiles have been brought to book, the World Bank-funded project in the Eastern Town of Soroti left several underage girls defiled and impregnated.
In late 2020, residents of Kawaala zone II woke up to the hail of armed men and graders evicting and destroying their properties to implement a multimillion-dollar project funded by the World Bank. The project is being implemented by the Kampala Capital city Authority (KCCA) on behalf of the government of Uganda.
The above-listed and other projects, on the other hand, continue to perpetuate violence and judicial harassment against leaders of Project Affected Persons (PAPs) and community land and environmental rights defenders because of their work that resists illegal evictions and destruction of the environment among others.
Although project implementers such as government entities accuse local communities of occupying land targeted for projects illegally, in most cases victim communities have rights over these pieces of land because their settlement on the same land can be traced to have happened generations ago.
No matter how people are negatively impacted being by these harmful projects, financiers continue to release more money to the government and investors. The banks aim at profit margins other than the livelihoods of the people. In Bulebi village, Mbazi parish, Mpunge Sub County in Mukono district, Akon’s futuristic city is about to lead to the eviction of over 1000 residents whose entire lives have been built on their land.
In April last year, American rapper Aliaune Damala Badara well known for his stage name AKON visited Uganda in search of land for constructing the city. On the same business trip, he met President Museveni Yoweri Kaguta and expressed his interest in building a futuristic city with its currency. The president ordered the Ministry of Lands, housing, and urban development to look out for free land for his city.
However, on 7th Jan 2022, the Uganda Land Commission showed the Minister for Lands, Housing, and Urban Development “Hon Judith Nabakooba” land that was proposed for the Akon city. According to the Uganda land commission, the land is Freehold Volume 53 Folio 9 measuring I square mile.
This has sparked outrage amongst the affected as they were never consulted or consented to allow the project in their community. According to community members that Witness Radio interviewed, they said they heard the distressing news of Akon city through the Media.
The community said no official from the ministry has ever approached them about their land giveaway. “Our country is full of land evictions and evictors begin in that way. There has been no official coming on the ground to officially inform us about the project and neither have we heard any official communication of compensation.” Obori said.
Residing in the attractive village surrounded by freshwaters, the community asserts this has been the source of livelihood and advised the government to get alternative land for the City.
Controversies surrounding the land giveaway and ownership of the area still exist. A section of residents have protested and vowed not to surrender their land for the City. They claim to have acquired freehold titles from the Mukono lands board.
Breaking: over 350,000 acres of land were grabbed during Witness Radio – Uganda’s seven months ban.
By Witness Radio Team.
As the onslaught on civil society heightens, its space continues to shrink which has bearing on the services they render to the communities. Witness Radio, was among the 54 organizations suspended by Uganda’s National Bureau for Nongovernmental Organizations on August 20th, 2021. The actions are amongst the recent forms of attack on civil societies in Uganda. Other numerous attacks include arrests of rights activists, harassment, tortures, and office- break-ins at night by security operatives who move away with valuables.
The effects of this suspension were felt by communities facing land grabs across the country. For seven months while the organization was suspended, over 300,000 people were evicted from their land and couldn’t access specialized and prompt legal assistance.
Witness Radio Uganda, globally known for its campaign against community land-grabs couldn’t assist these victims of land grab since it risked facing further sanctions from the Bureau in case it intervened. However, last week, there was some relief, when Uganda’s National Bureau for NGOs lifted suspension and certified its operation.
According to Mrs. Bulyerali Joan, the Head Legal at Witness Radio – Uganda, the organization conducted a review of the evictions that happened during the suspension. With information and assistance from some lawyers, local journalists, and community land and environmental rights defenders across the country, the evictions watchdog was able to document cases of hundreds of thousands of Ugandans that were either forcefully evicted or received threats of evictions while in its limbo.
The ban imposed on Witness Radio coupled with the disruptive impacts of COVID- 19 resulted in the surge of eviction cases, especially in areas where the organization had a presence. Throughout the ban, without access to swift and prompt legal support, the communities resorted to sharing with the world their ordeal.
She further noted that the evictions were conducted in disregard of the law on evictions. “I was shocked to see powerful people and companies take advantage of our suspension to escalate the evictions of vulnerable communities that received our assistance. The evictions did not comply with the land eviction practice directives. None of them was preceded by legal court orders.” She noted.
According to the Land Eviction directives, issued by the former Chief Justice of Uganda, Bart Katureebe, evictions shall be preceded by valid court order, properly identifying the persons taking part in the eviction, and upon presentation of formal authorizations. The police and local authority of the area shall be notified and shall be present to witness the evictions, among others.
Based on the data gathered by the team, various communities across the country were left dispossessed by land grabbers without any form of assistance. Others have received threatening messages with intentions of dispossessing them off their land.
During the period under review, over 300,000 people across the country are believed to have been threatened with evictions, while 350,000 acres of land were either grabbed or on verge of being grabbed.
“However much, we gathered this information, we expect the cases to be higher because some evictions go unreported either due to the remoteness of the areas or other related factors.” One of the collaborators observed.
The evictions were extremely violent. They were characterized by kidnaps, arrests and detentions, torture that often-caused unexpected grief to the communities.
Among the most affected districts include Kyankwanzi, Mubende, Kassanda, Hoima, Buikwe, Wakiso, Kikuube, and Bulambuli districts.
In some of the mentioned districts, the Lands, Housing, and Urban Development Minister toured and halted the evictions but the evictors continued unabated.
Mr. Kimazi Experito, a journalist based in Mubende, attributed the rise of evictions to the organization’s suspension which denied the evictions-affected communities access to specialized legal assistance.
He said Witness Radio has offered support to over 20 land-grab-affected communities in Mubende with legal support. “Witness radio is a game-changer that brought back lives of evicted communities to normal,” he lauded.
“Mubende is one of the fastest-growing areas because of gold and other minerals as well as factors related to fertile soils. Currently, it is one of the hotspots of evictions. Opportunists used this chance to grab land from people with full attention. Without the defenders, it’s often hard for people to get justice since local people are not much informed about land laws.” Kimazi explained.
Engineered by powerful people in public offices, multinational companies, and politicians using state machinery including the army and national police, forced evictions to continue to affect food sovereignty and threaten the role of indigenous communities to protect the environment.
During the same period, President Yoweri Museveni stopped any eviction without the approval of the Resident District Commissioners. However, legal experts warned that the move is to usurp the powers of the Judiciary. In a statement signed by Pheona Nabasa Wall, the Uganda Law Society President noted that the directive undermined the role and independence of courts in handling eviction matters.
That notwithstanding, “Occasionally, the residents are not given any opportunity to negotiate with the landlords. Even when the government obliges to pay landowners, neither does the government nor the evictor compensate for the damaged property. During evictions, properties that were made for their life end up being destroyed in seconds which causes lifetime misery.” Paul Kasoozi, a community land rights defender stated.
With different tactics aimed at alienating the poor from their land, it has been established that the police and the army continued to play a huge role in the largest forms of violent evictions through torture, arbitrary arrests, and detention and instilling fear and pressurizing the local communities to vacate their land on orders of the evictors.
Many of those community members who oppose land evictions end up being kidnapped, tortured, or arrested and detained to silence the community. It takes support from an organization defending communities’ land rights to intervene for such communities to get justice.
Days before the lifting of the suspension imposed on Witness Radio, communities neighboring the Katta Barracks in Bulambuli district, were violently evicted by the Uganda People’s Defense Forces under the alleged command of Lieutenant Colonel Mukiibi Julius without offering alternative resettlement.
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