Fresh Concerns About Women in Captivity
By Evelyn Matsamura Kiapi
Kampala — The fate of thousands of women and girls held as sex slaves and child soldiers by Uganda's Lords Resistance Army rebels hangs in the balance.
Since the insurgency began in 1986, the LRA has abducted thousands of women and girls. Some find opportunities to escape their captors, but according to a 2008 UNICEF Humanitarian Situation Report, approximately 3,000 women and children are still held by the rebels.
The delay in signing a peace agreement between the government of Uganda and the LRA has raised fresh concerns about their fate.
Forgotten victims of war
"The women in captivity have actually always been forgotten. We must advocate for them. They are still suffering," says Jane Adong Anywar, Legal Officer at the Women's Initiative for Gender Justice, an organisation advocating for justice for women in armed conflict and war through the International Criminal Court.
In 2003, the government of Uganda referred its 23-year-old conflict to the ICC. It requested investigation of crimes committed against women in northern Uganda, thereby accepting the ICC's jurisdiction within the country.
In October 2005, the ICC issued arrest warrants for five of the senior commanders of the LRA for war crimes and crimes against humanity including charges of rape and sexual enslavement. But the rebels have since fled to neighbouring DR Congo and Central African Republic where they continue to attack villages and abduct women and children.
A ceasefire was signed in July 2006, but peace talks held in Juba, South Sudan, between the Uganda government and the LRA rebels have stalled. A series of agreements signed at the talks have brought relative stability to the north, but a final peace agreement has proved beyond the parties.
Women activists are calling on government, the LRA, the U.N. Security Council and the ICC to make clear their positions on efforts towards peace, reconciliation and justice for the women of northern Uganda.
"We would like the International Criminal Court to come up clearly and give their stand - as concerns the northern Uganda war - because even the final peace agreement has never been signed," Judith Acana, secretary of gender at the Greater North Women's Voices for Peace Network, told IPS. The network brings together women's rights and peace groups and activists from the conflict-affected areas of northern and north eastern Uganda.
Women fear that without a final peace pact, the rebels could regroup and cause further instability in the region.
"If the LRA does not sign the peace agreement, these women and children will never be rescued and more women will suffer without justice being done," Acana says.
But Okello Oryem, Uganda's Minister for International Affairs stressed that government will not hold further talks with the rebels.
"There is no peace process in northern Uganda. The talks are finished. If we get [LRA leader Joseph] Kony, we shall arrest him," he told IPS in a telephone interview. The military is now hunting for rebel leader Joseph Kony, he says, as the government cannot negotiate peace with a person who has an arrest warrant on his head.
"The Rome Statute is very clear. Once the warrant has been issued it cannot be withdrawn until the person who the warrant is issued against is caught or arrested."
Ugandan women raise their concerns over the breakdown of talks and the military option as gender activists, peace mediators, jurists, Nobel laureates, political leaders and others gather in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to discuss ways of advancing gender justice through implementation of the Rome Statute and the ICC.
The International Gender Justice Dialogue from Apr. 19-21 will also seek to engage other institutions, including regional human rights courts and commissions and the U.N. Security Council.
Convened by Women's Initiatives for Gender Justice and the Nobel Women's Initiative, this conference comes ahead of the 10-year Review Conference on the Rome Statue and the ICC, set to take place in Kampala, Uganda at the end of May.
But Ugandan women activists caution that while the Mexico deliberations should go a long way in strengthening women's participation in peace and reconciliation processes, they may mean little unless a peace agreement is signed.
"The women at the grassroots are so helpless. They have given up on justice because none of the culprits have been caught and prosecuted. Also, poverty is killing them," says Acana.