Justice for Victims of Enforced Disappearances in Uganda Overdue

This commentary was written by Mugero Jesse, an Advocate of the High Court of Uganda and Transitional Criminal Justice Lawyer. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Open Society Justice Initiative. 

August 30th marks the International Day against the crime of Enforced Disappearances. A historical understanding of this heinous crime shows that the purpose is to create an enduring fear and terror in the lives of those who knew the disappeared person.

At the end of the over 20-year conflict in northern Uganda, a 2012 research project found that 56% of the families in the Acholi sub-region had at least one family member missing due to the war. But the true number is unknown because, at the time of writing, no official government record of the actual number of disappeared persons has been published. What complicates the situation is that the government is also accused of having made people disappear in its war against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), because it suspected them of being collaborators or allies. The issues surrounding victims of enforced disappearances and missing persons need to be addressed to ease reintegration, reconciliation, peace, and development in northern Uganda.

The crime of enforced disappearance sets in motion an endless state of emotional distress for family members of the disappeared person, since they do not know his or her whereabouts, or have any contact with someone who does. They are also financially crippled if the disappeared person was the sole bread winner of the family. Enforced disappearances in Uganda have resulted in the country losing potential manpower that could have otherwise have contributed to national economic development.

The disappeared person is at the mercy of his captors who have taken him outside the protection by the law. The crime of enforced disappearances usually enables the commission of other crimes such as abductions, secret detentions, torture, and extra judicial killings. It leads to violations of human rights such as the right to life, the right to dignity, the right to liberty, the right not to be tortured, and the right to an identity. The crime of enforced disappearances violates numerous treaties. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), the Convention on the Rights of Child (CRC), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women Convention (CEDAW), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR), and the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.

The victims of enforced disappearances still await justice for their disappeared relatives and friends. The criminal trials of Thomas Kwoyelo at the International Crimes Division in Uganda have focused on the charges of 53 war crimes and crimes against humanity and Dominic Ongwen at the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes. However, in all these cases, no one has been charged with the crime of enforced disappearances.

The Government has hardly responded to this crime. NGOs have tried to fill this void by promoting the use of memorialization as a way for relatives and friends of the disappeared to remember them. They have consulted with communities affected by the conflict for purposes of dedicating a specific day of the year to commemorate the disappeared. The memorial events are marked by prayers for the missing, those feared to have been killed or whose whereabouts are unknown. For example, there is a Peace and Conflict calendar developed by the Justice and Reconciliation Project that identifies specific days’ communities in northern Uganda commemorate the days. NGOs have also established permanent memorials such as a statue signifying a conflict that affected a particular community. However, this has been controversial especially when the number of people killed is highly contested by both the government and communities such as in Barlonyo in Lira district.

Community-led documentation centers and museums have also been established by NGOs to help survivors of the conflict remember the disappeared. The community-led documentation centers have been found to have a therapeutic effect in assisting the survivors to heal from the wounds of the conflict. The museums have assisted in preserving the history of the conflict. A prominent example of this is the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre in Kitgum district.

NGOs have implemented informal truth telling and storytelling sessions to aid the victims in their recovery from the conflict. These have given victims and survivors of the conflict an opportunity to tell their experiences and to talk about the disappeared. These sessions have resulted in the discovery of names and identities of some of those killed as well as the location of hidden mass graves. But only a tiny few exhumations have taken place, mainly because the government lacks the political will to allow NGOs to conduct further investigations.

The Way Forward

The government should expedite efforts of documenting persons who suffered human rights abuses in northern Uganda, including those who disappeared during the conflict with the LRA and to make the findings public. This will help victims know the fate of their relatives and friends who are still missing. This documentation program should be coupled with the provision of counselling services and other related health services to help the victims deal with the trauma of giving testimony.

The government needs to put in place legal reforms that will help family members of disappeared persons recover property that their family members owned. The current law in Uganda on missing persons inadequately addresses disappeared persons because its criteria for a missing person are narrow. It defines a missing person as one who disappears from Uganda without making provision for the management of his estate and who cannot be located by any investigation. This narrow definition has resulted in inadequate investigations, with many persons not categorized as missing and their estates have been tampered with by third parties. Also, due to the uncertainty regarding whether or not the persons have been disappeared and whether or not they will return and when they will do so, the family is unable to make closure and carry on with its life. However, once there is a law providing for a category of “victims of an enforced disappearance,” it will help surviving family members to inherit the family property.

The government needs to establish a truth commission that will deal specifically with the conflict in northern Uganda. The focus of the commission should be specifically on the fate of persons forcibly disappeared and the persons responsible for the disappearances. This investigation should be followed by exhumations to identify the remains of those disappeared and later killed. The remains can be given to family members for proper reburial.

It is incumbent upon the government to improve its relationship with NGOs in order to address the issues of the victims of conflict more thoroughly. The government should ensure that instead of enacting repressive laws that are aimed at curtailing the work of NGOs, they should work together as partners to help the victims.

Mugero Jesse is an Advocate of the High Court of Uganda and Transnational Criminal Justice Lawyer. He currently works with the Refugee Law Project in Uganda and is a researcher on transitional justice issues. He can be followed on his twitter handle @mugerojay99.

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