Transitional justice discussions around victims, particularly in reference to northern Uganda, often collapse victims’ interests into two broad categories. On the one hand, sweeping claims are made that all victims are interested in reconciliation, which is a key aspect of traditional justice mechanisms. While another set of victims, reportedly, prefers court prosecutions. Each interest is often presented as being in competition, contrary, and in exclusion of all other transitional justice processes.
The result is a rather simplistic definition of what victims want, largely on the basis of their geographical location. A review of the literature on victim interests in the transitional justice process in Uganda will unearth numerous claims on what the “victims of northern Uganda,” and/or the “Acholi victims” desire. These are often packaged as being against prosecution of Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commanders before national and international courts.
There is, however, a conspicuous lack of victim presence in discussions on what victims expect out of the transitional justice process. This can be attributed in part, to the fact that to a larger extent the transitional justice process in Uganda is elite-led and directed with support and guidance of the international community, to the exclusion of the poor and under privileged, including women and children, who suffered the most in the violence that preceded the transition process and who constitute majority of the victims of the LRA conflict. The elite include government agencies, civil society actors (both national and international), and members of academia who have dominated the framing of the transitional justice discourse in Uganda with little or no involvement of victims.
Secondly, victim engagement and consultation in the transitional justice process has not been adopted as a sustained policy in Uganda. It is noted that although some consultations have been held – especially during the development and review of the draft National Transitional Justice Policy – they are often sporadic one-time events that do not provide a sufficient platform for victims’ voices to be adequately heard and or captured.
Further, even where consultations are held, the data collected is synthesized and shared by civil society organizations and government agencies before it is presented and taken as representative of victims’ interests and needs. Victims, unfortunately, are not given an opportunity to validate these research findings, and often their interests are portrayed as competing and incompatible with some of the goals of a holistic approach to transitional justice.
Changing the transitional justice narrative in Uganda, therefore, requires the government and even civil society actors to rethink their victim-involvement strategies. It is important to recognize that victims of the armed conflict in northern Uganda are not a single-minded mass without individual agency to determine and present their expectations of the transitional justice process. They are in fact best placed to articulate what their transitional justice expectations before any platform or fora organized by the NGOs, academia, and other civil society actors.
It should also be stressed that within the broader victim collective, there are sub-victim groups with varying experiences of the LRA armed conflict. These levels of victimization have a bearing on what a victim wants and or expects from the transitional justice process. For example, victims of sexual violence crimes may have divergent transitional justice outcomes from victims of conflict related economic and/or infrastructural loss.
Further, female victims of armed conflict sexual violence and male victims of conflict related sexual violence, save for medical care, may not necessarily have similar expectations of the various transitional justice processes.
Therefore, when framing what victims want, government agencies, as well as civil society organizations actors, need to be aware of the different victim categories, levels of victimization, and the implications this has on the needs and interests of victims in the transitional justice paradigm
Additionally, there is a need to reassess and reconsider who can legitimately define what victims want. In this regard, it is noted that although civil society organizations are better placed to provide a platform for the amplification of victims’ voices, the civil society organizations cannot be the sole conduit of victims’ voices in the transitional justice paradigm. Victims should be provided a platform by the relevant government agencies, as well as civil society organizations and actors, to present their views and also effectively participate in transitional justice discussions and processes. While indeed, resource constraints and other practical hurdles may not allow for consultations with all victims, efforts still need to be made to support real engagement with a reasonable number of victims.
The relevant government agencies are urged to consult or engage organizations, such as the Uganda Victims Foundation and the African Youth Initiative Network, on the best practices and approaches in engaging victims of atrocity crimes and mass human rights violation. The latter organized the first ever National War Victims’ Conference, which highlighted the interests and needs of victims as presented by the victims themselves in a discussion on transitional justice between officials and representatives of government, national and international NGOs, and academia. This conference can serve as a learning point on providing victims platforms to speak for themselves about their experiences and expectations.
Uganda Victims Foundation has been able to mobilize victims nationally to advocate for their interests before national and international fora – their networks could be utilized by the relevant government authorities to reach the actual victims.
These approaches of victim engagement not only ensure that the transitional justice narrative adequately capture victims’ voices, but that it also adopts a bottom-up approach that will in turn make certain that transitional justice outcomes are relevant to the victims – in whose interests the field of transitional justice has developed.
Brenda Peace Amito is a human rights advocate in the field of international justice and transitional justice. Peace currently works as the Gender and Transitional Justice Coordinator at Tulane International LLC implementing the Uganda Fund’s Sexual and Gender Based Violence Project aimed at contributing a gendered perspective to the reparations efforts in northern Uganda.