Africa, Armed Conflicts, Headlines, Human Rights, North America

NGOs Call on Obama to Move Swiftly Against LRA

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, May 25 2010 (IPS) - A coalition of nearly 50 Western and African human rights and humanitarian groups is calling on President Barack Obama to “move swiftly” in implementing a law he signed Monday committing Washington to step up U.S. and regional efforts to defeat Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

“For years civilians in central Africa have suffered immensely from LRA violence,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“This legislation gives President Obama a clear mandate to work with international and national partners to apprehend indicted LRA commanders as part of a comprehensive strategy to permanently stop LRA atrocities,” she added.

The new law, the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009, passed with overwhelming support from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers in Congress earlier this month, just one year after it was first introduced.

In an unusually lengthy statement issued by the White House, Obama himself praised the many NGOs and activists – many of them students – who mobilised in response to what he called “this unique crisis of conscience”.

“This legislation crystallises the commitment of the United States to help bring an end to the brutality and destruction that have been a hallmark of the LRA across several countries for two decades, and to pursue a future of greater security and hope for the people of Central Africa,” he said, citing the 2005 indictment by the International Criminal Court of LRA leader Joseph Kony and four of his lieutenants, for crimes against humanity.


“I signed this bill today recognising that we must all renew our commitments and strengthen our capabilities to protect and assist civilians caught in the LRA’s wake, to receive those that surrender, and to support efforts to bring the LRA leadership to justice,” Obama said.

In recent years, the group has operated primarily in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), southern Sudan, and the Central African Republic (CAR), as well as northern Uganda, from whence it first arose primarily among members of the Acholi ethnic group in the late 1980s.

Just last week, HRW investigators reported that the LRA killed nearly 100 civilians and abducted dozens more between January and early April this year in the Manziga region of the DRC. U.N. peacekeeping forces (MONUC) in the nearby town of Niangara were unable to stop the mayhem because they were too few in number and poor roads in the area, according to HRW.

HRW and other NGOS have called for MONUC to substantially increase its presence in the region.

The three-month campaign followed a deadly LRA rampage in December in which more than 300 civilians were killed and 250 others – mostly women and children – abducted in the DRC’s Makombo region, also in the northeast. The group has gained particular notoriety for forcing abducted children to bear arms and abducted girls and women to become sexual slaves.

In an appeal addressed to Obama published last week, human rights defenders in Niangara complained that “our suffering seems to bring little attention from the international community or our own government. We live each day with the fear of more LRA attacks. What chance do we have if no one hears our cries and if no one comes to our aid?”

Under both Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, Washington has provided “non-lethal” and logistical support to the Ugandan army in its efforts to subdue the LRA and its leadership, particularly after Kony failed twice to sign a peace accord in 2008. The U.S. subsequently listed the LRA as a terrorist group.

In December 2008, the Ugandan, DRC, and south Sudanese armies launched “Operation Lightning Thunder”, a joint effort backed by U.S. intelligence and logistical support via Washington’s newly created Africa Command (AfriCom), to track down Kony and his armed followers.

Kony and much of his army escaped, however, and responded later that month by carrying out their own attacks against defenceless villages and civilians, in the DRC and southern Sudan, killing more than 850 civilians and forcing as many as 1.8 million people in the region to flee their homes, according to human rights monitors.

The new law authorises U.S. efforts “to protect civilians from the (LRA), to apprehend or remove Joseph Kony and his top commanders from the battlefield in the continued absence of a negotiated solution, and to disarm and demobilize the remaining LRA fighters”.

It also requires Obama to develop a comprehensive, multilateral strategy to protect civilians in central Africa from LRA attacks and to increase humanitarian aid to countries currently affected by the group’s violence, as well as to support economic recovery and transitional justice initiatives in northern Uganda.

In an analysis published this week in worldpoliticsreview.com, Ledio Cakaj, a Uganda-based consultant with the Washington-based Enough Project, warned that any new U.S. strategy should “avoid the twin pitfalls of underestimating the LRA and overestimating the Ugandan Army (UPDF)”.

While the LRA’s lines of communication were disrupted and its main contingents forced to disperse into neighbouring countries as a result of the 2008 operation, it “remains a potent adversary”, he wrote, noting that that its troops were well trained in tactics and significantly more mobile than the UPDF.

Although the U.S. has provided training – notably for UPDF units who have been deployed to Somalia and subsequently returned home – as well as logistical and intelligence support (in the form of sporadic satellite images of LRA encampments), “(h)elicopters and fuel needed to cover the vast areas where LRA rebels operate are lacking”.

“While policymakers should be encouraged by the progress achieved so far with nominal U.S. help, decisive U.S. involvement will significantly improve outcomes,” according to Cakaj, who stressed that Washington’s diplomatic clout was also needed to persuade regional governments and the U.N. missions in the area to “do their share in protecting civilians and fighting the LRA”.

The geographical spread of the LRA’s area of operation should also be a growing concern to the U.S. and its allies, according to the NGOs.

“If left unchecked, the LRA leadership will continue to kill and abduct throughout Central Africa, threatening stability in four countries and potentially undermining next year’s scheduled referendum in southern Sudan,” said John Prendergast, co-founder of Enough.

“The LRA is a clear threat to international peace and security, and the U.S. is now tasked with leading a global effort to end this threat once and for all,” he said.

In addition to HRW and Enough, U.S.-based NGOs that joined the appeal to Obama included Refugees International, the Genocide Intervention Network, and Citizens for Global Solutions.

African groups included the Uganda-based Foundation for Human Rights Initiative and Grassroots Reconciliation Group; DRC-based Commission Paroissiale Justice et Paix, Centre de Recherche sur L’Environnement, la Democraties et les Droits de L’Homme, Fondation Mere et Enfant, Action Sociale Pour la Paix et le Developpement, Collectif des Organisations des Jeunes Solidaires du Congo; and Episcopal and Catholic dioceses and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), among a dozen groups based in South Sudan.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

 
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