After years of war, hundreds of former militia fighters are coming out of the forests of Ituri, in the far northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to disarm. “The time of war is over,” declared Col. Mathieu Ngujolo, a militia commander. “Now is the time to rebuild our country.”
For many residents of Ituri, peace is enough, for now. “We lived through the war. We lost our parents, our brothers and sisters. We suffered the worst atrocities,” commented John Tibamwenda, a district chief in Bunia, the provincial capital, during a demobilization and arms-destruction ceremony. “It’s now time to turn the page.”
Yet in the DRC, and other countries emerging from war, many people are wondering whether peace must come at the expense of justice for those who pillaged, raped, killed and terrorized. Are communities that were victimized expected simply to welcome back those who victimized them? Or might prosecutions jeopardize peace efforts and make combatants hesitate to hand in their arms?
Amnesty or prosecution?
Seeking ways to resolve such dilemmas was one of the challenges facing participants in the Second International Conference on Disarmament, Demobilization, Reintegration and Stability in Africa, held earlier this year in Kinshasa, the DRC’s capital. Organized by the Congolese government and the United Nations Office of the Special Adviser on Africa, the meeting drew DDR experts and practitioners from across Africa and from various UN and other international agencies.
On the relationship between DDR and justice, the greatest controversy has revolved around the granting of amnesty. Amnesties have been common in peace pacts in Africa, Latin America and elsewhere, often as inducements to warring factions to join a peace process.
In 2000, Uganda adopted an Amnesty Act for anti-government militias, guaranteeing those who renounced violence a resettlement package and a promise to not bring charges against them. By December 2006, about 21,000 rebels had agreed to accept the offer, including some 15,000 from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which for years has wreaked havoc in northern Uganda. In those communities many people regard amnesty as an important tool for peace and for recovering children kidnapped by the rebels. Similarly, some form of amnesty has featured in peace talks in Sierra Leone, Liberia, the DRC and other countries.
Human rights activists, however, argue that failing to prosecute those who committed the worst atrocities perpetuates a culture of impunity that can contribute to future abuses. They also point out that under international law there can be no amnesty for war crimes or crimes against humanity.
There is some evidence that the threat of prosecutions may complicate demobilization efforts. In one instance representatives of a special court for war crimes in Sierra Leone were barred from a demobilization camp because peacekeepers feared that ex-combatants would abandon it.
Striking a balance
In practice, peace negotiators have sought to strike a balance. In the DRC, explained Daniel Kawata, national coordinator of the disarmament and demobilization commission, any commanders suspected of “heavy criminal business” were subject to arrest. But such arrests were limited so as not to “lose the possibility of demobilizing a whole bunch.”
When the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague announced several years ago that it was opening investigations into war crimes by the LRA, some local communities warned that indictments could hamper peace efforts. In October 2005 the ICC issued warrants for the arrest of Joseph Kony and other LRA commanders. Justice Peter Onega, chairman of Uganda’s Amnesty Commission, said in an interview with Africa Renewal that such judicial action “may not help in the amnesty process.”
Despite the indictments, however, peace talks with the LRA have not collapsed. One option now under consideration is for Ugandan courts to try Mr. Kony and his colleagues instead.
Communities at the centre
Formal trials are not the only option. Rwanda, for example, is trying several hundred thousand cases stemming from the 1994 genocide in community courts. These gacaca assemblies enable villagers to directly confront the accused, who may be forgiven or sentenced, including to community service.
So far, notes Alpha Fall, a senior associate of the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in New York, the trials do not seem to have hampered efforts to reintegrate ex-combatants, some 54,000 of whom have given up arms since 1995.
In Uganda, many of those who were granted amnesty have participated in traditional rituals known as timo-kica or mato oput (forgiving, reconciling), in which they publicly acknowledge their past actions. “Once this is done,” Mr Onega explains, “this person is once again accepted back into the community and all animosity toward this person must stop.”
Governments can also help communities that are receiving demobilized ex-combatants. In Ituri, the former militia fighters will each receive $100. If poor villagers do not also get support for rebuilding, the imbalance can breed resentment and convey an impression that the ex-fighters are being “rewarded” for their past violent behavior.
Providing reparations for the victims of atrocities can also help improve attitudes towards ex-combatants, Mr Fall argues.
Ultimately, prosecutions can also aid reconciliation, Mr Fall adds. “Prosecution of militia leaders can help draw a distinction between those who have most responsibility for crimes, and lower-level offenders…increasing the prospects for trust between ex-combatants and the communities where they choose to reintegrate.”
United Nations Africa Renewal