This week it was reported that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (“ACHPR”) issued a long-awaited decision on the merits of Thomas Kwoyelo’s complaints against the state of Uganda.
Kwoyelo’s story is a long and complicated one, about which much has been written. In brief, he has been wading through the Ugandan legal system since his capture in 2009. The first ex-LRA commander to be prosecuted before the International Crimes Division of the High Court of Uganda, his defence team initially argued that he was entitled to amnesty under the Amnesty Act 2000, which granted amnesty to anyone who “renounced rebellion”. Over 26,000 people from various rebel groups received amnesty certificates. Kwoyelo’s application was denied as the Director of Public Prosecutions (“DPP”) decided he was to be charged with grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions Act 1964, charges later reformulated as violations of customary international law and the Penal Code Act.
In 2011, the Ugandan Constitutional Court ruled that Kwoyelo was discriminated against by being denied amnesty and should be released, a decision later overturned in 2015 by the Supreme Court on appeal by the DPP. In essence, the Supreme Court ruled that the Amnesty Act was never intended to amnesty crimes against civilians (only acts of rebellion), and that the DPP retained discretion under the Act to bring charges against persons who did not qualify for amnesty. The Supreme Court thus approved the legality of Kwoyelo’s prosecution. In doing so, I have previously argued that the Supreme Court re-defined the prevailing meaning of amnesty in Uganda, as heretofore understood by the relevant stakeholders and local people in northern Uganda, in particular.
In the midst of all this litigation, in October 2012, Kwoyelo filed a complaint with the ACHPR, arguing, inter alia, that he was discriminated against by being denied amnesty while thousands of other LRA fighters received it. It was alleged this amounted to a violation of article 3 of the African Charter, which provides “that every individual shall be entitled to equal protection of the law.” Kwoyelo also alleged mistreatment while in detention. During the last session of the ACHPR, a decision on this complaint was finally reached. The full decision is here.
The decision is interesting on numerous levels, but for now this post will focus on the ACHPR’s handling of the amnesty question.
(This post has been modified from a previous article published by the International Peace Institute’s Global Observatory)
As international forces scrambled to provide security for the visit of Pope Francis to the Central African Republic (CAR) and recent, largely-peaceful elections, local and international actors have called for the rearmament of the country’s armed forces following the re-emergence of sectarian violence. However, such a move is fraught with danger, including threats by certain ex-Séléka factions to invade the capital Bangui should it occur.
CAR’s national armed forces (FACA) in Bangui, photo credit: AFP
CAR’s recent wave of sectarian violence followed a civil war that erupted in December 2012, when the Muslim-led Séléka alliance headed by Michel Djotodia took up arms and toppled President Francois Bozize’s regime with help from Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries. Ensuing clashes between Séléka fighters and the mainly-Christian “anti-balaka” militias were estimated to have killed over 3,000 people before a ceasefire was signed in July 2014.
Following many months of relative calm, Bangui witnessed a renewal of intense fighting in late September this year. The apparent trigger was the stabbing death of a Muslim taxi driver, with residents of the capital’s PK5 neighborhood taking to the streets. Since then, at least 90 people have been killed and 40,000 displaced, according to United Nations estimates.Cameroonian and Burundian peacekeepers with the UN’s mission in CAR (MINUSCA) were among the dead. National political leaders have also been abducted and the myriad, well-armed militia groups continue to threaten the country’s transition after years of civil conflict.
Yesterday, the Ugandan Supreme Court ruled that Thomas Kowyelo’s trial should continue in the International Crimes Division (ICD) of the High Court. There is, at present, no full judgement available, so the court’s reasoning cannot be thoroughly digested at this stage. However, by allowing his trial to continue, the Supreme Court has effectively denied amnesty to Thomas Kwoyelo.
Thomas Kwoyelo awaits judgement in the Ugandan Supreme Court on 8 April 2015. (Photo: New Vision)
As noted previously on this blog, a ruling to this effect could have the potential to undermine or even invalidate thousands of amnesty certificates that have been issued by the Amnesty Commission since its creation under the Amnesty Act in the year 2000. Until the Supreme Court’s reasoning on the amnesty issue can be fully assessed, it is unclear how the court came to its decision. But, having been eligible for amnesty under the letter of the 2000 law, if Kwoyelo can now be prosecuted, what does that mean for every holder of an amnesty certificate in Uganda?
Thomas Kwoyelo awaits the start of his trial in Gulu, July 2011. Photo: Justice and Reconciliation Project
A few days ago, former Lord’s Resistance Army (‘LRA’) rebel commander, Thomas Kwoyelo, seemingly made a direct appeal to President Yoweri Museveni to be pardoned for crimes he is alleged to have committed in northern Uganda during the civil war. In an interview with the government-sponsored newspaper, the New Vision, Kwoyelo is quoted as saying:
“Having undergone various rehabilitation programmes, I have realised my past mistakes like any other Ugandan who erred.
I pray that the President gives me a second chance in life.” Kwoyelo, who is currently on a peacemaking and reconciliation programme, said he has benefited from the course and pledged to practice what he has learnt because it calls for reconciliation with God and the society he wronged.
“I am willing to work with the Government at all cost. Once considered for clemency, I swear never to go back to rebel activities,” he said.
This plea for clemency, and the timing of it, is intriguing for a number of reasons. But first, some background and context for those not familiar with the case of Thomas Kwoyelo.
On 21 May 2013, the Republic of Uganda became the first state in Africa to publish a comprehensive Draft Transitional Justice Policy. Six years after the Juba Peace negotiations between the Lord’s Resistance Army (‘LRA’) and the Government of Uganda (‘GoU’) ended without being formally signed by both parties, the GoU has committed itself to implementing an holistic Transitional Justice policy, designed to address issues of accountability, reparation and reconciliation in post-conflict Uganda. While still a ‘draft’ policy, it marks an historic step by the GoU in creating a framework designed to implement the provisions of the ‘Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation’, Item no. 3 of the Juba Peace Agreement.
At the beginning of the Juba negotiations, Joseph Kony and his deputy Vincent Otti sit inside a tent at Ri-Kwamba in Southern Sudan. (Photo credit: CSMonitor)
In summary, the draft Ugandan policy provides for the following central interventions:
Regarding formal justice processes, the GoU shall ensure witnesses are protected and victims can participate in proceedings;
The GoU commits to recognizing traditional justice mechanisms as a tool for conflict resolution;
The GoU shall establish and resource a national truth-telling process;
The GoU shall establish and implement a reparations programme for victims affected by conflict; and
There shall be no blanket amnesty, with those who have already received amnesty encouraged to participate in truth-telling and traditional justice processes.
On the five commitments listed above, some brief reflections: