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Uganda's LRA rebels may face home-grown tribunal

Local courts could offer resolution, but critics say they may not go far enough.

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Sunlight streams through the wide leaves of banana trees onto Betty Angee, who has lived at a desolate camp for displaced civilians in northern Uganda since fleeing from the notorious Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels four years ago. Now she says she has the chance to go home.

Last week, the Ugandan government announced that it is beginning public meetings on how to design a national tribunal that will try LRA members accused of committing war crimes.

The proposed local courts may provide an alternative to extraditing members of the rebel army to face 33 International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The LRA has refused to sign any peace deal with the government unless the charges from the ICC are dropped.

Many Ugandan survivors of the war say local courts – similar to the ones created in Rwanda after their genocide – is not only necessary for peace, but would administer justice that would be acceptable to most Ugandans. They also worry that trying LRA members in the ICC will actually make the situation worse. For human rights activists, however, the local tribunals are seen as a soft alternative that may encourage impunity.

Decades of brutality

For 20 years, the LRA has waged a savage campaign for power, notorious for forcing women and children into its ranks and cutting off the facial features of their victims. Thousands of civilians have died as a result of the conflict. Nearly 2 million have been displaced and forced to live in bleak refugee camps. Finding a way to try them for war crimes has proven difficult.

"The essence of the system would be based on truth-telling," says Ruhakana Rugunda, Internal Affairs minister and chief government negotiator at peace talks in Juba, South Sudan. He says that the tribunal will include punitive justice, but also draw on forgiveness themes from a traditional ritual known as mato oput. The system requires that a murderer face relatives of the victim and admit his crime before both drink a bitter brew as an act of reconciliation.

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