Working to end a war

Penn Law students in Uganda Penn Law students Sarah Ashfaq, Niki Amalu, Colin McIntyre, Rachel Loftspring and Rushmi Ramakrishna outside the Amnesty Commission in Uganda. Photo credit:

A group of Penn Law students has been advising the Ugandan government as it works to bring an end to the country’s brutal 22-year civil war—a war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced more than a million people.

The Ugandan government has been battling Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) since the 1980s. In that time, the United Nations estimates that some 30,000 children have been abducted to work as child soldiers, porters, or “wives” in the LRA. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in January 2003 referred the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which handed down indictments against Kony and five of his top deputies.

Peace talks between Museveni’s government and the LRA began in the summer of 2006, and in 2007, Uganda’s ambassador to the Netherlands asked Penn Law professor William W. Burke-White, an expert on international law and politics, to write a report for the Ugandan government on the preliminary peace agreements reached between the government and the LRA. Burke-White agreed to do so—but only if his law students could assist him.

Burke-White got his wish. Soon afterward, Burke-White and 10 of his Transitional Justice Seminar students traveled to Uganda and spent 10 days interviewing more than 50 people. They spoke with everyone from the Ugandan minister of justice and solicitor general to LRA representatives and victims in displaced persons camps. “It’s one thing when you’re studying a conflict and a process of reconciliation from 7,000 miles away,” Burke-White says. “Going there and talking to people first-hand is an extraordinary learning experience for me and for the students.”

Their 54-page report, “A Just Peace: Beyond Conflict in Northern Uganda,” offers a number of key recommendations, including the use of a special domestic court to prosecute senior LRA officials. Many LRA rebels are refusing to sign a peace deal unless the ICC warrants are withdrawn. Uganda’s open-ended amnesty law offers a reprieve to any rebel who surrenders, even senior officials. The report supports amnesty for lower level rebels, but Burke-White adds: “The government needs to provide accountability to those who have been most responsible for serious international crimes.”

Northern Ugandans have suffered unimaginable horrors during the war and need help going forward. So to assist Northern Ugandans, the report recommends establishing a comprehensive reparations program. Women have also fared badly in the conflict, often subjected to forced marriages and rape by LRA officials, so the report recommends that women be fully included in local governance and local traditional justice mechanisms, and be given rape counseling and treatment.

Burke-White, 31, worked previously on issues of judicial reconstruction and post-conflict accountability in the Democratic Republic of Congo, East Timor, Cambodia, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. In Uganda, he says the unique challenge is the debate between peace and justice. While some Ugandans prioritize peace, even if it means letting the rebels go free, others want the rebels punished, even if the war rages on.

Burke-White and his students were set to present their report to the State Department on May 13, followed later by a presentation to the Ugandan mission to the United Nations.

Originally published May 22, 2008

Originally published on May 22, 2008