Traditional Justice and Accountability in Northern Uganda

This field research will document and analyze how traditional justice and accountability systems in northern Uganda address war-related crimes and harms committed during the region’s conflict. Special attention will be given to how these informal systems take up rebel- and government-perpetrated crimes against women and girls. One of the methods to study how gender and sexual based crimes are handled within traditional systems will be to investigate how the different war-affected ethnic groups (namely the Acholi, Langi, and Iteso) perceive certain justice and accountability issues such as gender-based and sexual crimes vis-à-vis their own traditional systems and those of the other groups. Looking at ethnic groups’ activities independent from one another, we will document what they are doing to realize justice and accountability within their group and throughout the war-affected region as a whole.

As traditional systems in the north have not evolved to deal with widespread and systematic violence like that experienced and perpetrated in this conflict, it is the intention of the Tufts/FIC team to provide timely information on the formation of these mechanisms and examine their application of local customary law. Our prior research supports claims that among the different ethnic groups in the north there are dissimilar notions regarding the ‘road map’ to attain justice and accountability for war-related crimes and, ultimately, for the formation of sustainable peace. How traditional systems handle war-related crimes will have social, economic, and political implications nationally and regionally.

Since 2002, our research teams in northern Uganda have documented, analyzed, and reported on the widespread nature of violence perpetrated by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army and the government of Uganda including the Uganda People’s Defense Force. This work has been carried out mainly in Acholiland and the Lango sub-region, with emphasis on the experiences of women and girls.

By investigating the experiences of women and girls within the settings of LRA captivity, urban centers, and internally displaced persons camps, we have collected witness testimony on widespread and frequent human rights violations and crimes, including rape, LRA abduction, forced marriage within the LRA, as well as domestic violence. With the 22-year conflict as a backdrop, we have analyzed the circumstances under which these crimes have been carried out and documented the legal and logistical challenges confronting women and girls moving their cases through traditional and local justice systems.

What we have discovered are patterns of failed and incomplete legal procedures where women and girls have been limited by biased patriarchal systems and antiquated practices. Similarly, male youth who have experienced high levels of violence during the course of the war have faced their own challenges in accessing traditional and local justice systems to seek legal redress for crimes committed against them. Considering Agenda Item 3 of the Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation (2008) between the LRA and the government of Uganda, traditional justice mechanisms look to form a central part of the justice and reconciliation framework in the north.

Our research supports the claim that among the different war-affected populations of the north, particularly along ethnic and geographic lines, there are competing views of how traditional justice and accountability shall be administered with the administration of these systems laying the foundations for sustainable, regional peace.

The purpose of this research will be to provide timely documentation on developments among traditional justice and accountability systems within Acholiland, and the Lango and Teso sub-regions. Through interviews, our written documentation and reporting will analyze how these systems compare to women’s and girls’ expectations and concerns of what justice and accountability for crimes perpetrated against them should include and how they should play out in communities and nationally. Likewise, the research will analyze how traditional systems deal with gender-based and sexual crimes within different ethnic regions and how these systems, although similar in a historical sense, evolve (or not) to address the realities of the conflict. This research began in July 2008 and will continue through 2010.

In the past the team has worked in cooperation with key stakeholders and interested parties throughout its work. This study will be no different. The main groups include survivors’ and victims’ groups, local and regional government offices, clan and ethnic leadership circles, national and local legal groups, including the Legal Aid Project and the Refugee Law Project at Makerere University, national women’s human rights groups including Isis-WICCE, UNICEF Protection and Child Protection, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

A final international report will be published with findings from the field research and disseminated within Uganda and internationally. Additionally, briefings will be conducted to policy and programming offices and agencies to influence developments in Uganda and in other areas where traditional justice and accountability systems may address gender-based and sexual violence.

This work will influence two processes: transitional (including traditional) justice and accountability systems addressing gender and sexual-based crimes; and the inclusion of different ethnic groups in formulating broad, congruent strategies to best address crimes committed within the context of armed conflict.

At the national level, this work will provide key knowledge of the administration of traditional justice and accountability systems where national and international systems do not always have influence on the arbitration of gender-based and sexual crimes. As early signs indicate that impartial adjudication of crimes perpetrated against women and girls is uncertain in northern Uganda, this work will inform present and future policy and programming initiatives that aim to increase women and girls’ access to effective justice mechanisms. Furthermore, this work will inform parties to the Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation about how different ethnic groups want particular crimes to be addressed and how they are going about those processes. This research will demonstrate the many different perceptions groups in the north have regarding definitions of justice and accountability and what they think needs to be done to promote both.

At the regional and international level, this work will be informed by and develop linkages with regional and international efforts to develop women and girl’s access to justice and accountability.

This work is part of Tufts/FIC’s larger project-based work in South Sudan and Uganda looking at how armed conflict has affected communities and people. This work complements the work described above, justice and accountability within formal justice mechanisms. Furthermore, this work is carried out with key partners operating within northern Uganda on issues of justice and women’s rights. Linkages continue to be established and strengthened between this project and local and national human rights organizations and key NGOs with programming activities focused on the promotion of justice and accountability. Importantly, this project recognizes that working with grassroots organizations and with community and ethnic leadership is vital to not only understand the systems under examination, but also to influence their development and implementation of practices we find beneficial to women, girls, and communities affected by war-related violence.

United Nations’ agencies such as UNICEF’s Uganda child protection office have been supportive in the past and we expect to maintain close contact with that agency throughout the duration of this study. The team is also linked with UNICEF researchers at UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre in Florence, Italy and the International Center for Transitional Justice.