Uganda's Transitional Justice Policy 2019: Better Late than Never!

Jul 05, 2019

This announcement caught many transitional justice activists, practitioners, war victims, survivors, and the conflict-affected communities by surprise, given how long the process had dragged and because of all the indications that it had almost stalled.

By Stephen Oola

On June 18, 2019, the Ugandan Cabinet approved the long-awaited Transitional Justice (TJ) Policy for Uganda.

This announcement caught many transitional justice activists, practitioners, war victims, survivors, and the conflict-affected communities by surprise, given how long the process had dragged and because of all the indications that it had almost stalled.

Transitional Justice (TJ) is described as a full range of processes and mechanisms associated with a society's attempt to come to terms with the legacy of large-scale past abuses, in order to ensure accountability, serve Justice and achieve reconciliation. Transitional Justice consists of both Judicial and non-Judicial processes and mechanisms some of these include truth-telling, reparations programmes, prosecutions, and institutional reforms.

Transitional Justice Policy is an essential structure or framework designed by the government of Uganda to address issues of past human rights violations in order to promote Justice, accountability, reconciliation as well as sustainable peace. The policy is designed to provide holistic interventions to achieve lasting peace in Uganda, a country with a dark conflict past. Various justice mechanisms are proposed in this policy and this makes it a great deal for victims and survivors of war as well as societies.

The need for a national Transitional Justice Policy in Uganda was borne out of the growing clamor for justice, accountability and reconciliation in northern Uganda. This followed the end of the nearly three decades of civil war between the government of Uganda and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The sheer magnitude of victims affected by the conflict made ad-hoc post-conflict governments recovery responses like the PRDP, Luwero Rehabilitation Programme and Karamoja Integrated Development Programme look shambolic and insufficient. There always remained the question of acknowledgment, accountability and the demand for reparations which continued to grow countrywide.

Many civil society activists engaging in transitional justice advocacy, including the Refugee Law Project, and other in different parts of the country actively mobilized victims' groups, conducted research and published findings that clearly demonstrated how unaddressed legacy of conflicts across the country poses real threats to national healing, unity, reconciliation and sustainable peacebuilding.

The JLOS Transitional Justice Working Group established by the government to consider Resolutions of the Juba Peace Agreements and develop its implementation mechanisms opted for a national Transitional Justice Policy to ensure a coherent and coordinated government response not just to the northern Uganda conflict but throughout the country.

The JLOS then embarked on drafting the Policy which has gone through a number of back and forth discussions with key stakeholders resulting in over ten different drafts documented along the way. While there was huge interest at technical levels within the relevant line ministries on the Policy, at the Political level the Policy received mixed reactions. For a very long time, the Policy was scheduled in the Cabinet agenda but kept being pushed backwards until it was no longer talked about. It was, therefore, a big surprise when it was announced that the Cabinet has finally adopted the Policy.

There is no doubt that the Cabinet's adoption of the TJ Policy however late is a welcome development. First and foremost, it's an acknowledgment that victims of the myriad conflicts in Uganda, past and ongoing, deserve justice. Second, it provides a framework for the pursuit of the much-needed justice, accountability, healing and reconciliation in the country. Third, it demonstrates that the government is willing and committed to pursuing transitional justice measures.

Finally, it answers the call of the many activists, victims and conflict-affected communities that Uganda is deeply hurt and must sit down in the judgment of itself.

The approved Transitional Justice Policy provides a number of important criteria for the pursuit and realization of justice for victims of conflict, and the promotion of national healing and reconciliation including through formal justice approaches truth-seeking and reconciliation processes, legal and institutional reforms as well traditional justice mechanisms. These have now been officially acknowledged by the government and declared as the mechanisms it will implement to deal with legacies of large-scale violence and human rights abuses committed in the country since independence. The Policy also defines, in a very broad manner, who is a victim and puts the victims at the center of the pursuit of transitional justice in Uganda.

Specifically, the Policy provides for government recognition of the traditional justice mechanisms such as mato oput, ailuc, tono ci coka etc as practiced by some communities in Uganda as transitional justice mechanism which better resonate with local people's sense of justice.

Reparations have also been identified as indispensable for justice to be done and expectations will be therefore very high that, going forward, the government will design and implement a coordinated holistic reparations programme as opposed to the many ad-hoc recovery, rehabilitation and developmental programmes often disguised as reparations.

Finally, the Policy clarifies the position of amnesty as a transitional justice mechanism. Its importance as a necessary tool for addressing conflicts is empathized while at the same time declaring that amnesty cannot be blanket.  Therefore, it should be carefully applied, and depending on the context, amnesty will remain a necessary tool for conflict resolution in Uganda.
Many of the key civil society advocates for the TJ Policy and the victim's groups have since moved on due to governments unresponsiveness to TJ but now that there is an overreaching framework for discussion and action, it is time to regroup and fulfill the aspiration of so many Ugandans whose lives and dreams were shattered by wars and oppression.

The adoption of the Policy also puts to rest the question of whether past recovery and development assistance offered to the conflict-affected communities amounted to reparations. A lot of past government development assistance were being termed as ‘reparation" in post-conflict areas in Uganda especially northern Uganda. The definition and criteria for implementing reparations programmes under the Policy are clear that it should be victim-centered and restore the victims to a state similar to before the victimization. It is therefore obvious that none of the previous government responses sufficiently meets this yardstick.

The Policy recognizes the importance of documentation and preservation of evidence for transitional justice. These are some of the areas where civil society actors and in particular RLP was way ahead of the government with the establishment of the National Memory and Peace Documentation Center (NMPDC). The NMPDC has since 2011 been documenting Uganda's past conflict events for the preservation of historical facts.

Much as there has been a delay in the approval of this policy by the government, it still makes a lot of sense to the community who have suffered the brunt of conflict. And they are very optimistic that the process to enact this into the law will be done within the shortest time possible. We all appeal to the government through the Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to immediately draft a TJ Bill and table it in Parliament for enactment. The victims are dying and cannot afford another decade in limbo as the policy is put in force.

The writer is the director of Amani Institute Uganda
Co-authored by Nono Francis, the Center manager at National Memory and Peace Documentation Center-Refugee Law Project.

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