FEDERAL WAY, Wash. Since the ceasefire between the Ugandan government and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) was called and peace talks began in July 2006, the people of northern Uganda have seen substantial improvements in their living conditions, says Rory E. Anderson, Federal Way-based World Vision's deputy director of advocacy and government relations.
But, said Anderson, the people on the ground are keenly aware these improvements will vanish if fighting resumes.
"The only way they can return toand rebuildtheir lives is with the signing of an official peace agreement," Anderson said.
Last month, the Ugandan government and the rebel LRA agreed to set up a special war crimes court in Uganda to address the most serious crimes committed by the rebels during the country's 22-year civil war.
That agreement has sparked debate among international agencies, says an article by World Vision's Amy Parodi carried by Reuters news agency.
According to that article, several groups, most notably Amnesty International, have criticized the decision to allow war crimes to be tried in Uganda, rather than upholding current arrest warrants, which were issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in October of 2005. Reuters reported that the ICC will continue to pursue charges against the LRA despite the agreement.
World Vision says those arrest warrants have been a sticking point in the peace negotiations as the top LRA commanders have vowed to continue hostilities if the ICC indictments against them are not dropped. The Uganda-based court is a compromise to address that.
As a result, much of the population and many humanitarian groups working in the region support the idea of a Uganda-based war crimes court, wanting to bring the conflict to an end before continuing to debate means of bringing justice to the situation, the article says.
"Hundreds of thousands of peoplemany of whom have been homeless for more than a decadehave been able to move closer to their villages and have slowly begun rebuilding their communities. Attacks against civilians and abductions of child soldiers have all but stopped," Anderson said. "Notably, most of the organizations insisting the ICC remain involved do not have on-the-ground programming in northern Uganda. Neither they, nor the people they serve on a daily basis have been personally affected by the war. Regrettably, those who have never been affected by the conflict could very well prolong it."
Anderson said that World Vision is not suggesting that justiceeven internationally applied justiceisn't crucial in this case.
"But if the ICC indictments are an obstacle to bringing peace to this terrorized region, we have to prioritize: peace first, then justice," he said. "The vast majority of the people that World Vision serves in its programsparticularly the formerly abducted LRA child soldiers and sex slaves who have been through World Vision's Children of War Rehabilitation Programhave expressed a desire for peace, regardless of the means. To say that they are weary of war is a gross understatement.
"While those we've met with want to see the LRA leadership come to justice, they are not willing to sacrifice peace and security in their communities any longer to achieve it. World Vision believes that their voices should be the primary guides in addressing how justice is addressed."
However, said Anderson, organizations that have provided emergency response, psychosocial counseling for former child soldiers and other vital services have seen the devastation this conflict has created. World Vision's staff members have been personally affected by the conflict.
"Several have seen their own children abducted by the LRA to serve as soldiers and sex slaves. Many have endured the brutal deaths of family members at the hands of rebel soldiers. Many have been displaced by the fighting. Some of our staff have even been abducted themselves," Anderson said. "Yet, they've continued in their service to their communities. Taking action to honor their desires in ending the conflict is long overdue.
"Of course sustainable peace is based on justice. But peace must come first. The people of the region must be able to rebuild their lives. At that point, the region and the international community can debate how best to carry out meaningful justice."
A version of this article was originally distributed by ASSIST News.