Commonwealth leaders overlook civil war in northern Uganda

>> Monday, November 26, 2007

Mike Blanchfield, CanWest News Service

Published: Saturday, November 24, 2007

Despite the two decades of fighting in northern Uganda that enslaved tens of thousands of child soldiers and drove two million people from their homes, it remained, for many years, Africa's forgotten war.

But, as this neatly scrubbed Ugandan capital plays host to leaders from 53 Commonwealth countries for their weekend summit, this 21-year-old conflict - now Africa's longest - has been transformed into something else: an invisible war.

There has been virtually no mention of the ongoing conflict at this summit. Canada's silence comes despite its modest $1.5-million contribution that makes it the leading donor to the Juba Peace Process, named after the south Sudanese town where the peace talks aimed at ending the war have been held periodically since the spring.

As far as Uganda's human rights watchdogs are concerned, all of this amounts to a missed opportunity to push Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to make peace with the rebel Lord's Resistance Army. Instead, the fate of Pakistan and climate change dominated the gathering. Prime Minister Stephen Harper was to meet Museveni today. Human rights groups are hoping that Harper and his fellow leaders can push Museveni to negotiate an end to the war and rebuild his country's battered north.

"The key thing is that they do two things: convey privately to President Museveni their strong views to ending the war and bring justice to the victims," said Richard Dicker, director of international justice programs at Human Rights Watch in New York.

The leaders, including Harper, must also make clear "in their public statements" that they have done this, he added.

"There are a number of human rights-related issues outstanding in Uganda, but I would put the situation in the north and the need to bring an end to this conflict right at the top of that list," said Dicker.

Adam O'Brien, Ugandan analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the summit is "an important opportunity for the Canadian government to see where its money is going. Canada's position as a donor gives it, in theory, some say in the matter."

A fragile ceasefire has spared northern Uganda of LRA violence since the summer of 2006. But while some displaced people are going home, more than a million remain in squalid, disease-ridden camps.

The LRA, led by the messianic Joseph Kony, has terrorized northern Uganda for two decades and has become the world's largest army of child soldiers brainwashed through ritualistic initiation rites into becoming guerrilla fighters. The LRA has burned villages and mutilated civilians across the north, but has since retreated into the neighbouring eastern Congo as Museveni agreed to peace talks for the first time. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has indicted Kony and his senior commanders.

The fact that Uganda was going to be in the international spotlight at this Commonwealth heads of government meeting is likely to have spurred Museveni to talk peace - something he resisted until the past year. Father Carlos Rodriguez, a Spanish missionary priest who has lived in northern Uganda since the early 1980s, said the Museveni government was worried that its international image might suffer if fighting continued while the country was in the international spotlight this weekend.

"For many years, Uganda was Africa's success story and the world was anxious to hear success stories in Africa because there are very few. In the meantime there was this terrible war and there were two million people displaced in the north of the country and it didn't catch anyone's attention," said Rodriguez, who has been a vocal critic of Museveni.

That changed in 2005 after the United Nations declared the war one of the world's most under-reported crises. "That was when Uganda became Africa's horror story." Over the years, Museveni has proven to be a slick player on the global stage, avoiding any serious public upbraiding for his country's poor human rights record.

"He's a chameleon. He is a tremendously adaptive, shrewd, power-nurturing pragmatist," said O'Brien.

Commonwealth leaders need to push Museveni to stick to the peace process long after the summit's spotlight has dimmed and to come up with a long-term plan to rehabilitate the north, where economic activity has ground to a standstill, he said.

"The situation in northern Uganda has been the most regrettable development that we have had over the last 20 years," said Kizza Besigye, Uganda's opposition leader, who has faced his own woes, including being imprisoned for rape and treason when he ran against Museveni in Uganda's controversial 2005 presidential election.

"Northern Uganda constitutes one of the most productive areas of our country. For the last 20 years, rather than getting production out of that area, we have been investing in supporting millions of people in internally displaced-people's camps," said Besigye. "This is a social disaster for our country." Rodriguez said it is still too early to tell whether Museveni will follow through on the negotiations with the LRA after the Commonwealth summit has ended, or whether he simply backed the peace process to stave off international embarrassment. "If we see a decrease of interest we will know it was only for the sake of image."

O'Brien said it would have been instructive for the leaders to leave their secure retreat enclave to see "one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes - not only in Africa, but in the world" only a few hours drive north of the capital.

"It would be certainly wonderful if the leaders were actually able to leave Kampala and go into the north to see how people are living in the camps, and see the magnitude of the problem," O'Brien said.


About This Blog

The X.U.G (Xpose Uganda's Genocide) Coalition was created to bring to light the truth about Yoweri Museveni's woefully undemocratic regime and the ongoing secret genocide in northern Uganda, with the aim of the restoration of human rights and peace.

The coalition's secondary goal is to ensure accountability for reconstruction and development funds slated for war-torn N. Uganda by the US and other donors.

A crisis of epic proportions, the genocide being carried out against the Acoli for the last two decades has produced devastating consequences.

For the sake of current and future generations in Uganda, the world must recognize and end the genocide in Uganda. All Ugandans have a right to basic human rights, including the right to health, protection and education.

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