Gen. Aronda's Admission on Camps Exposes Crimes Against Humanity
By Samuel Olara
Kampala — In the run-up to the African Union (AU) sponsored Special Summit on Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced People in Africa held in Kampala last month, Uganda's Chief of Defence Forces, Gen. Aronda Nyakairima, was quoted by The Observer to have declared that confining non-combatants to camps in conflict zones was "an effective military tool for counter-insurgency."
Gen. Nyakairima's straight-faced revelation is surprising, coming after years of equally blatant denial that the government deliberately created the camps and drove civilians into them, as a conscious military strategy, and with full knowledge of what the strategic military, as well as social and economic consequences were for the northern and eastern Ugandan population. Other than strafing villages to drive the population into the camps and establishing military garrisons to restrict population movements in and out of the camps, the military and the Ugandan state did nothing to provide the basic needs of the population, but left them to the vagaries of filthy conditions, hungry, sick, unproductive and dependent on international humanitarian organisations.
Contrary to their steadfast denial until recently, the official decree ordering the creation of camps was announced by President Museveni to members of the Parliamentary Committee on Office of the President and Foreign Affairs, on September 27, 1996. As reported in The New Vision of September 29, 1996, forcible encampment of civilians would leave the countryside "open for UPDF confrontation with the marauding remnants of the (Lord's Resistance Army-LRA) rebels (then) terrorising innocent people."
Chua County MP Okello Okello recalls that members of the legislature from the northern region raised serious objections about the plan to move civilian population in eastern and northern Uganda to camps. In response, President Museveni agreed to consult with the military, and later informed the concerned legislators about the official government decision, but they never heard from him again.
Interestingly, in October 1996 the Presidential Advisor on Political Affairs, the notorious Maj. Kakooza Mutale, was deployed in Gulu. Maj. Mutale began to recruit and deploy a paramilitary force in Gulu called the Popular Intelligence Network (PIN) that reported directly to the President's Office. One of their first assignments was to persuade people to move into camps. According to Maj. Mutale, President Museveni's idea was that the camps would "enable the destruction of the intelligence centres of insurgency" (The Monitor, 30 October-1 November 1996). In their strategic thinking as elaborated by the Major: "The depopulation of the villages removes the soft targets and logistics for the survival of the rebels. They will lack food, information, and youth to abduct and people to kill. Desperation will drive them to attack the army and the camps. That will be their end". [The New Vision, 13 November 1996].
With PIN state paramilitary partisans among the population, the resident Presidential Advisor on Military Affairs in charge of the northern insurgency, Gen. Salim Saleh, declared the end to any peace overtures and announced renewed military offensives against the LRA (New Vision, 20 June 1996; The Crusader, 18 July 1996). To break any reluctance, the army swiftly began to shell villages in Pabbo, Opit, Anaka, Cwero, Unyama, Awach, KocGoma, and Amuru (Human Rights Focus, 16-24; The Monitor, 20 November 1996). The shelling was supported with aerial bombardment. The then commander of the 4th Division, Lt. Col. James Kazini (RIP), denied this and said the shelling was from LRA (The New Vision, November 13, 1996).
The military approach to a "cleared area" was revealed by Gen. Saleh on August 7, 1996. He told journalists that, once the period covered by the military edict to civilians to leave the countryside had elapsed, the army and the state would take it for granted that "the people found in the countryside are rebels" (The Monitor, August 9-12, 1996).
Immediately, members of the Acholi Parliamentary Group (APG) sought audience with then Minister of State for Defence, Amama Mbabazi, to express concerns about the government and unconstitutional conduct of the army in the region. According to the Acholi Religious Leaders' Peace Initiatives (ARLPI) report, Let My People Go, the Minister declared that: "Since the people in Acholi supported the rebels, the army had no choice but to move people away from their villages in order to deny the rebels food and information." He is quoted to have further asserted that he "did not believe the reported atrocities committed by soldiers were true." The minister later repeated the same statements to a delegation from the EU, who had visited Gulu and had in fact, voiced the same concerns (see Let My People Go, ARLPI 1990).
Once the camp policy was in place, the UPDF adopted and implemented a deliberate policy of not responding to LRA attacks on civilians, as a strategy to force those reluctant to leave their villages into camps. Moreover, the government later withdrew a large number of soldiers from the north, leaving the concentration camps unprotected.
In an attempt to shore up the security of the camps, the government came up with and accelerated a devious program that began under the stewardship of Minister Betty Bigombe of training Local Defence Units (LDU) home guards from among the camp population, to be deployed as frontline fighters against the insurgents.
By February 1995, up to 12,000 poorly trained Acholi youths had been conscripted into the LDU, given basic two weeks training and deployed to fight LRA insurgents (Sunday Vision, October 23, 1994; New Vision, December 1, 1994). Consequently, between January 7 and 12, 1997, LRA rebels allegedly murdered more than 412 men, women and children in Lokung, Padibe and Palabek, in Kitgum District. This first of a series of gruesome massacres in Acholi, triggered the first waves of flights to the so-called military detaches which were deliberately erected far away from the local villages and trading centres.
On October 4, 2002, UPDF announced a 48 - hour ultimatum to the entire Acholi population to move into camps. Those who moved into camps were put under strict movement orders enforced by the LDU and the regular UPDF. Those found outside the perimeters of the camps were treated as rebels, rebel collaborators, and sometimes shot.
The accusation of being a rebel collaborator became a convenient way of eliminating independent political organisation in the north. Thus, anti-civilian violence came to be used not just to prevent the population from building a political relationship with the rebels, but also to prevent the population from organising to demand an end to the war.
The LRA also attacked civilians they found outside the camps and the UPDF's policy to treat anyone found outside camps as rebels or collaborators who would be killed, meant that people had no choice but to remain inside the camps. Caught in a catch-22 situation, the concentration camps thus became the deadliest killing centres and the most destructive manifestation of the Ugandan government's anti-civilian counterinsurgency campaign.
The government policy of forced displacement and internment comprises a number of crimes under international humanitarian and human rights law. Determining the intent of a perpetrator of any crime is rarely an easy task but it can be "inferred from a systematic pattern of coordinated acts."
Forced expulsion into harsh environments and deliberate none provision of basic amenities fall under such an interpretation. It is important to stress that intent is different from motive, and that the motivation of those committing the crime is irrelevant to determining responsibility. In the case of northern Uganda, intent has been established beyond doubt.
Article 7 (1) (d) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court 1998, declares that "[d]eportation or forcible transfer of population" constitutes a crime against humanity "when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack, directed against any civilian population".
What about aid agencies?
There is a significant need to also expand the debate over post-conflict accountability in northern Uganda so as to include the complicity of humanitarian aid agencies and other external actors who were responsible for enabling and supporting the Ugandan government's policy of forced displacement and internment. While the Ugandan government is the principal in committing these crimes, humanitarian aid agencies are accessories to those crimes and thus are also liable.
It appears that if the relief agencies had not intervened and had not continued to manage the internment camps to date, political pressure over internment would have combined with popular resistance among the people of northern Uganda to have rendered mass internment unsustainable. This leads to the conclusion that, because the humanitarian crisis was the product of displacement into the camps and because the camps could only be sustained by the massive presence of relief agencies, the relief agencies, instead of resolving the humanitarian crisis, contributed to its perpetuation.
The WFP, for instance, agreed to cooperate with forced displacement despite 'the lack of reasonable steps taken by the Uganda government and UPDF first, to minimise displacement and second, to create conditions in which it can be brought to an end as quickly as possible'.
In continuing to manage the camps, even when inmates were dying at the rate of 1,500 per week, committing suicide at the rate of 3 inmates per day per camp, relief agencies continued to manage the internment camps making the long-term internment of the entire rural population a viable strategy for the Ugandan government, at the cost of tens upon tens of thousands of civilian lives. The excess mortality rates in the camps--deaths above the emergency-level death rate was "staggering--between 22,000 and 30,000 in the first seven and a half months of 2005, of which 8,000 to 12,000 are children under the age of five," according to the Internally Displaced Persons Health and Mortality Survey Uganda 2005 (conducted by WHO, the International Rescue Committee and Uganda's Ministry of Health).
Clearly, the creation and sustaining of the camps, and forced displacement and long term internment of civilian population in the camps, with little or no basic provisions, were clear violations of humanitarian laws and conventions. As much as the state and their actors are culpable for designing these policies, while knowing their consequences, aid agencies should also be held accountable for being complicit in committing crimes against humanity for sustaining the camps through providing aid to their inhabitants while knowing the state was violating international laws on internal displacement.