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The Uganda Connection

While renegade leader Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) top the list of Ugandans indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), some suggest that the ICC needs to look more closely at Uganda’s earlier role in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Indeed, it is becoming increasingly possible that Ugandans could eventually appear at The Hague-if not as defendants, then as witnesses-over their country’s well documented involvement in the Ituri region of DRC.

Since the trial of accused Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga began in late January, Uganda has been mentioned as having sponsored, trained, and armed his militia, and in so doing made it possible for Lubanga to commit the crimes for which he stands accused.

Uganda’s involvement in the DRC from 1996 to 2003, which has been detailed in various United Nations reports and condemned by the International Court of Justice, has been highlighted during the ongoing trial of Lubanga.

When they entered Congo in the mid-1990s, Ugandan troops occupied much of the Ituri region, controlling it through proxy militias such as those associated with Lubanga.

Early on, Uganda and Rwanda teamed up to back former DRC president Laurent Kabila, who overthrew Mobutu Sese Seko’s regime.

Uganda then proceeded to help itself to resources in Ituri, which is well documented in UN and Human Rights Watch reports, systematically removing some of the region’s gold, diamonds and timber.

A UN panel implicated several Ugandan military commanders, many of whom have very close ties to the upper echelons of the Ugandan government.

Accused of plunder, Uganda has been ordered by the International Court of Justice to pay compensation, which remains undetermined and unpaid.

Perhaps the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICC should take a keener interest in Uganda’s past activities in Ituri.

According to testimony given in Lubanga’s trial, Ugandan commanders helped Lubanga establish his group, train his fighters, and obtain arms.

Now the Ugandan protégé is at The Hague facing war crimes accusations related to the conscription and use of child soldiers.

While the Ugandan army has been mentioned by a number of witnesses in Lubanga’s trial, the most explicit connections are found in a video recorded in 2003 and screened at the trial in February.

It showed Lubanga accusing Ugandan troops of arming child soldiers in various Congolese militia groups. In the video, Lubanga said Ugandans had plundered Congo’s resources and encouraged conflict between different Congolese ethnic groups.

Lubanga is not the only former protégé of Ugandan commanders currently facing international justice.

Jean-Pierre Bemba, whose rebel forces at one time held nearly one third of Congolese territory, is another. Uganda worked closely with Bemba as an ally, arming his Movement for Congolese Liberation (MLC) training his fighters, and providing troops to fight alongside his group.

Bemba now stands accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape, torture, murder, and pillaging.

These alleged crimes were not committed in the DRC or during actions that involved Ugandans, however. Rather, they were in the Central African Republic in late 2002 and early 2003.

While much of the Ugandan connection to the events in Ituri occurred before the ICC’s mandate took effect in July 2002, Uganda did not formally withdraw from Ituri until a year later in 2003. And, its involvement continued through more subtle means.

Though Uganda’s presence in Ituri is well documented, there has been a reluctance by the ICC, in particular the prosecutor’s office, to explore and expose what appears to be Uganda’s critical role there.

Despite that reluctance, however, it is conceivable that based on existing UN reports and the accumulating weight of testimony at the ICC, some Ugandans in the army could be investigated, charged, or called as witnesses at the ICC over their earlier involvements with Bemba and Lubanga.

As Lubanga’s attorney, Jean-Marie Biju-Duval, argued at the start of his client’s trial, government leaders in Uganda and Rwanda who provided weapons and support to disparate Congolese militia groups are culpable in the crimes committed in that country.

But would Uganda be prepared to hand over officials indicted by the ICC?

Some African countries have been hesitant to transfer suspects to The Hague, based on the idea that peace and reconciliation should be promoted, rather than a blind commitment to the principles of justice.

This line of thinking is what Congolese authorities offer for their reluctance to hand over indicted militia leader Bosco Ntaganda, Lubanga’s former confidante, who has been charged with crimes similar to those Lubanga is accused of. It is also the position taken by some African leaders who oppose the ICC arrest warrant for Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir. They say it complicates the delicate peace process in southern Sudan and Darfur.