Uganda: First ICC Conviction of an LRA Leader

The conviction of Dominic Ongwen on February 4, 2021 is a major step for justice for widespread atrocities committed by the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.

The guilty verdict at the International Criminal Court (ICC) shows that rights abusers can find themselves held to account even if years have passed since their crimes.

Ongwen is the first LRA leader to be tried before the ICC, and the first to be convicted for LRA crimes anywhere in the world.   

The judges found that Ongwen was guilty of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The crimes include attacks on the civilian population, murder, torture, persecution, forced marriage, forced pregnancy, sexual slavery, enslavement, rape, pillage, destruction of property, attacks on the civilian population, and recruitment and use of children under the age of 15 to participate in the hostilities. The judges did not find evidence of duress or mental illness or defect that would negate his culpability for the crimes.

“The LRA terrorized the people of northern Uganda and its neighboring countries for more than two decades,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “One LRA leader has at last been held to account at the ICC for the terrible abuses victims suffered. Would-be rights violators should take note that the law can catch up with them, even years later.”

Human Rights Watch issued a Question-and-Answer document and a feature article on the trial on January 27.

The LRA originated in 1987 in northern Uganda among communities in the Acholi region of the country, who suffered serious abuses at the hands of successive Ugandan governments. Their campaign initially had some popular backing, but support waned in the early 1990s as the LRA became increasingly violent against civilians.

The group, led by Joseph Kony, abducted and killed thousands of civilians and mutilated many others by cutting off their lips, ears, noses, hands, and feet.

The LRA’s brutality against children was particularly severe. Ongwen had been one such victim, as he was abducted into the LRA as a 10-year-old child in 1990. The ICC does not have jurisdiction over crimes committed by anyone under 18, but Ongwen was tried for crimes he committed as an adult. His abduction as a young child and the brutality he may have experienced should be considered as mitigating factors at his sentencing, Human Rights Watch said.

The LRA abducted over 30,000 boys and girls and forced them to become soldiers, laborers, and sex slaves. They were forced to beat or trample to death other children who attempted to escape and were repeatedly told they would be killed if they tried to run away. At the height of LRA activity in the early 2000s, as many as 40,000 children, known as the “night commuters,” each night fled their homes in the countryside to sleep in the relative safety of towns to avoid abduction.

Ongwen is the only LRA leader among five charged by the ICC who is in custody. Kony is an outstanding fugitive and the other three are declared to be or presumed dead.

Over four thousand victims were “participants” in Ongwen’s trial, separate from the role of witnesses. Early decisions in the case highlighted shortcomings, however, when it came to giving victims a voice in the choice of which lawyers would represent them. The ICC also actively conducted outreach to the local population on the trial. This included bringing community members to observe the trial at the ICC and audio and video screenings in northern Uganda of portions of the trial.

The ICC’s decision to open cases against Ongwen and other LRA leaders in 2005 coincided with a resumption of peace talks between the rebel group and the Ugandan government, although the final peace agreement was never concluded as Kony did not show up to sign it. Military campaigns against the LRA eventually pushed the group across the border into southern Sudan –now South Sudan and, in 2005 and 2006, into the Democratic Republic of Congo. The LRA later crossed in and out of the Central African Republic.

Starting in 2010, the US government provided assistance and military advisers to support regional efforts to arrest Kony and other LRA leaders, but in 2017 the US ended the program.

In recent years the LRA has splintered into smaller groups operating across central Africa. Kony and a group of his fighters are believed to be based in the Kafia Kingi, a disputed area on the border between Sudan and South Sudan. The organization Invisible Children, which tracks the various LRA groups, has documented continued abductions and looting.

Governments committed to justice for victims of LRA atrocities need to revisit how to ensure Kony’s ultimate arrest and surrender, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations, African Union, and Economic Community of Central African States should support such efforts.

Following the verdict in the Ongwen case, the parties have 30 days to appeal. The ICC will also conduct hearings on sentencing and possible reparations for victims.

“Ongwen’s trial and conviction are major developments, but they should not obscure the need for Joseph Kony’s arrest and surrender,” Keppler said. “Countries should recommit themselves to seeing Joseph Kony face the ICC once and for all.”

Novartis expands Africa Sickle Cell Disease program to Uganda and Tanzania

Novartis and its partners announced the expansion of the Africa Sickle Cell Disease program to East Africa with the signature of two new memoranda of understanding with the Ministries of Health of Uganda and Tanzania. The program, first launched in Ghana in November 2019, aims to improve and extend the lives of people with sickle cell disease (SCD) in sub-Saharan Africa, with plans to reach a total of 10 countries by 2022.

Photo Credit: Sickle Cell Disease Coalition

“In this time of worldwide uncertainty, it is even more important to support people living with chronic conditions like sickle cell disease,” said Dr. Patrice Matchaba, Group Head of Global Health & Corporate Responsibility at Novartis. “We are excited to join forces with the Ministries of Health of Uganda and Tanzania and local partners to reimagine treatment and care for people with sickle cell disease.”

Within the scope of these public-private partnerships, Novartis and its partners have agreed to explore collaboration opportunities aimed at tackling the growing burden of SCD in their countries. The partners intend to develop and implement a comprehensive approach that includes making diagnosis and treatment available, accessible and affordable for patients and their families; promoting scientific research, training and education; and pursuing robust monitoring and evaluation of the program. As a next step, Novartis plans to work with the respective Ministries of Health to further define the scope of each collaboration and explore opportunities for additional partnerships.

In Ghana, the program is already making progress with more than 2000 patients being treated with hydroxyurea in 11 treatment centers across the country. To date, Novartis has delivered more than 60 000 treatments of hydroxyurea in Ghana, helping ensure SCD patients have uninterrupted access to treatment during the global pandemic. At the same time, Novartis has registered the medicine for the treatment of SCD in Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Hydroxyurea is a commonly used medicine for patients with SCD in developed countries, and is approved for use in both adults and children. A recent study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine2, indicates that hydroxyurea is effective and safe in children with SCD in sub-Saharan Africa and reduces the incidence of pain events (vaso-occlusive crises), malaria, blood transfusions, and death.

In addition, Novartis has signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Ghana with the intent to collaborate on promoting education, research, advocacy and capacity building to advance Ghana’s national health agenda to improve the health and well-being of people with SCD. At the same time, we are continuing our efforts to develop a child-friendly formulation of hydroxyurea and have announced plans to conduct two clinical trials in Ghana and Kenya for its next-generation treatment for SCD, crizanlizumab. Crizanlizumab, a novel targeted biologic therapy, is approved in a number of countries to reduce the number of pain crises in people with SCD. The trials are expected to start in 2020; this will be the first time that a biologic therapy, which is not a vaccine, enters multicenter clinical trials in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa).3

“As we fight the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa, we cannot lose sight of other health priorities for the region, including sickle cell disease,” said Dr. Charles Kiyaga, Sickle Cell Program Head at the Ministry of Health in Uganda. “Such partnerships between the public and private sector are necessary to help accelerate progress in SCD prevention and management for the benefit of the patients, their families and communities.”

Sickle cell disease is recognized by the World Health Organization as a public health priority and a neglected health problem in sub-Saharan Africa, which carries approximately 80% of the global disease burden.4 In countries in West, Central and East Africa, the prevalence of the sickle cell gene is between 10 to 30%, while in some areas it is as high as 45%.5 It is estimated that approximately 1 000 children in Africa are born with SCD every day and more than half die before they reach five years of age.1 This is due primarily to a lack of early diagnosis through newborn screening, penicillin prophylaxis, parental education, and comprehensive care. In resource-poor countries, more than 90% of children with SCD do not survive to adulthood.6

IMF Executive Board Approves a US$491.5 Million Disbursement to Uganda to Address the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved today a disbursement of SDR361 million (about US$491.5 million or 100 percent of quota) for Uganda under the Rapid Credit Facility (RCF).

It will help finance the health, social protection and macroeconomic stabilization measures, meet the urgent balance-of-payments and fiscal needs arising from the COVID-19 outbreak and catalyze additional support from the international community.

The Ugandan economy is being severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and, in particular, such key sectors as services (tourism), transport, construction, manufacturing and agriculture. The challenging external environment is curtailing remittances and foreign direct investments. The pandemic has also exacerbated the challenges posed by heavy rains in early 2020 and the ongoing locust invasion.

To contain the impact of the pandemic, the authorities have increased health spending, strengthened social protection to the most vulnerable, and enhanced their support to the private sector. The Bank of Uganda has appropriately reduced interest rates and provided liquidity to safeguard financial stability, while maintaining exchange rate flexibility.

The weakening economic conditions emanating from the Covid-19 pandemic have put significant pressures on revenue collection, expenditure, reserves and the exchange rate, creating urgent large external and fiscal financing needs.

The IMF continues to monitor Uganda’s situation closely and stands ready to provide policy advice and further support as needed. The authorities have also committed to put in place targeted transparency and accountability measures to ensure the appropriate use of emergency financing.

Following the Executive Board’s discussion on Uganda, Mr. Tao Zhang, Deputy Managing Director and Acting Chair, issued the following statement:

“The global COVID-19 pandemic is expected to severely hit the Ugandan economy through several channels, with detrimental effects on economic activity and social indicators. The external and fiscal accounts are expected to deteriorate, creating substantial urgent external and fiscal financing needs.

“To limit the pandemic’s human and economic impact, the authorities have promptly adopted bold preventive measures to contain the spread of the virus, and scaled up health spending to strengthen the health system’s capacity. Interventions to support the more vulnerable have also been introduced. In addition, the Bank of Uganda has swiftly introduced policy measures to support liquidity, preserve financial stability and support economic activity. The authorities are encouraged to continue to step up social protection programs to cushion the impact on the vulnerable population and to protect health spending allocations over the medium term.

“A temporary widening of the fiscal deficit is warranted in the short term to allow for the implementation of the response plan. Despite a temporary worsening of debt indicators and heightened vulnerabilities, public debt is expected to remain sustainable. The authorities remain committed to ensuring debt sustainability, including through their efforts to enhance revenue collection and strengthen public investment management.

“The authorities are committed to managing transparently the resources received and will strengthen transparency and accountability. They plan to report separately on the use of the funds, undertake and publish an independent audit of crisis-mitigation spending and publish large procurement contracts.

“The IMF’s emergency financial support under the Rapid Credit Facility, along with the additional donor financing it is expected to help catalyze, will help address Uganda’s urgent balance of payments and budget support needs.”

ICJ postpones DRC v. Uganda reparation case to Friday 22 November

The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial organ of the United Nations, has postponed the public hearings on the question of reparations in the case concerning Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Democratic
Republic of the Congo v. Uganda), which had been due to take place between Monday 18 and Friday 22 November 2019.

The Court made its decision taking into consideration the joint request submitted by the Parties by a letter dated 9 November 2019.

The DRC filed its application to the ICJ in June 1999, alleging that acts of armed aggression carried out by Uganda on DRC territory constituted a flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter and the Charter of the Organization of African Unity.

The DRC submitted three claims:  (1) by engaging in military and paramilitary activities against the DRC and by occupying DRC territory and actively extending military, economic and financial support to irregular forces operating in the DRC, Uganda violated international law governing non-use of force, peaceful settlement of disputes, respect of sovereignty, and non-intervention; (2) by committing acts of violence against DRC nationals and destroying their property, and by failing to prevent such acts by persons under its control, Uganda violated international legal obligations to respect human rights, including the obligation to distinguish between civilian and military objectives during armed conflict; and (3) by exploiting Congolese natural resources and pillaging DRC assets and wealth, Uganda violated international law governing rules of occupation, respect for sovereignty over natural resources, right to self-determination of peoples, and the principles of non-interference in domestic matters. 

Uganda filed three counter-claims: (1) the DRC used force against Uganda in violation of the Article 2(4) of the UN Charter; (2) the DRC allowed attacks on Ugandan diplomatic premises and personnel in Kinshasa in violation of the law of diplomatic protection; and (3) the DRC violated certain elements of the 1999 Lusaka Agreement.

In its order of November 2001, the Court found the first and second claims formed part of the same ?factual complex? as the DRC claims and were therefore admissible under Article 80 of the Rules of the Court. The third counter-claim was deemed inadmissible on the ground it was not directly connected to the subject-matter of the DRC claims.

On July 1, 2000, the Court issued provisional measures requiring that both parties ?refrain from any action ?., which might prejudice the rights of the other Party ? or which might aggravate or extend the dispute.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. It was established by the United Nations Charter in June 1945 and began its activities in
April 1946. The Court is composed of 15 judges elected for a nine-year term by the
General Assembly and the Security Council of the United Nations. The seat of the Court is at the Peace Palace in The Hague (Netherlands). The Court has a twofold role: first, to settle, in accordance with international law, legal disputes submitted to it by States (its judgments have binding force and are without appeal for the parties concerned); and, second, to give advisory opinions on legal questions referred to it by duly authorized United Nations organs and agencies of the system.

Credit: America Society of International Law, ICJ

WHO warns continuing Ebola outbreak in DRC poses a risk to neighbouring countries

The exportation of cases into Uganda is a reminder that, as long as this outbreak continues in DRC, there is a risk of spread to neighbouring countries, although the risk of spread to countries outside the region remains low, according to an Emergency Committee statement by the WHO.

The meeting of the Emergency Committee convened by the WHO Director-General under the International Health Regulations (IHR) (2005) regarding Ebola virus disease in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) took place on Friday, 14 June 2019, from 12:00 to 17:00 Geneva time (CEST).

The Committee expressed its deep concern about the ongoing outbreak, which, despite some positive epidemiological trends, especially in the epicentres of Butembo and Katwa, shows that the extension and/or reinfection of disease in other areas like Mabalako, presents, once again, challenges around community acceptance and security. In addition, the response continues to be hampered by a lack of adequate funding and strained human resources.

The cluster of cases in Uganda is not unexpected; the rapid response and initial containment is a testament to the importance of preparedness in neighbouring countries. The Committee commends the communication and collaboration between DRC and Uganda.

At the same time, the exportation of cases into Uganda is a reminder that, as long as this outbreak continues in DRC, there is a risk of spread to neighbouring countries, although the risk of spread to countries outside the region remains low.

The Committee wishes to commend the heroic work of all responders, who continue to work under extremely challenging and stressful conditions.

The Committee extensively debated the impact of a PHEIC declaration on the response, possible unintended consequences, and how these might be managed. Differing views were expressed, as the Committee acknowledged that recent cases in Uganda constitute international spread of disease.

The Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization (WHO) reported the first confirmed case in Uganda during the Ebola outbreak on-going in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The confirmed case is a 5-year-old child from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who travelled with his family on 9th June 2019. The child and his family entered the country through Bwera Border post and sought medical care at Kagando hospital where health workers identified Ebola as a possible cause of illness. The child was transferred to Bwera Ebola Treatment Unit for management. The confirmation was made today by the Uganda Virus Institute (UVRI). The child is under care and receiving supportive treatment at Bwera ETU, and contacts are being monitored.

Uganda confirms first Ebola case outside outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo

Uganda and the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday confirmed a child has been diagnosed with Ebola, the first cross-border case from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where a large outbreak has raged for the last 10 months.

Surveillance for ebola virus disease at the border between DR Congo and Uganda | Photo: Matt Taylor

Although there have been numerous previous alerts, this is the first confirmed case in Uganda during the Ebola outbreak on-going in neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The confirmed case is a 5-year-old child from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who travelled with his family on 9th June 2019. The child and his family entered the country through Bwera Border post and sought medical care at Kagando hospital where health workers identified Ebola as a possible cause of illness.

The child was transferred to Bwera Ebola Treatment Unit for management. The confirmation was made today by the Uganda Virus Institute (UVRI). The child is under care and receiving supportive treatment at Bwera ETU, and contacts are being monitored.

Dr. Mike Ryan, who heads the WHO’s emergencies program, said the meeting will likely occur within the next day or two, after the agency consults with the governments of Uganda and DRC.

Ryan said Uganda and partners have been working for months to protect the border area against just this type of event. “It’s never good news to have Ebola,” he said, but suggested the preparatory work should help contain the threat.

The Ministry of Health and WHO have dispatched a Rapid Response Team to Kasese to identify other people who may be at risk, and ensure they are monitored and provided with care if they also become ill. Uganda has previous experience managing Ebola outbreaks.

In preparation for a possible imported case during the current outbreak in DRC, Uganda has vaccinated nearly 4700 health workers in 165 health facilities (including in the facility where the child is being cared for); disease monitoring has been intensified; and health workers trained on recognizing symptoms of the disease. Ebola Treatment Units are in place.

UN highlights need to solve growing burden of forcibly displaced Africans

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
Some 53,000 Nigerians displaced by conflict are living in the Minawao refugee camp in north-east Cameroon. (February 2019)

With 24.2 million Africans forced from their homes in 2017  ̶  4.6 million more than the previous year  ̶  the UN is hosting a three-day event at UN headquarters, focusing on finding durable solutions to the problem, which is a growing burden on the continent’s economy, environment and communities which host those displaced. 

The 2019 Africa Dialogue Series, (ADS) which began on Monday under the theme “Towards durable solutions for forcibly displaced persons in Africa,” brings together a wide range of actors with a stake in finding ways to deal with the issue, including representatives of national governments, the African Union, civil society, the private sector and the United Nations.  

Speaking at the opening session, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, President of the UN General Assembly, commended the contribution African countries are making to strengthen multilateralism. 

Ms. Espinosa said that she resolved to make Africa the focus of her activities at the outset of her GA Presidency, adding that she believes Africa’s contribution to the UN is under-appreciated, and that the region’s voice remains under-represented in the international system. 

Ms. Espinosa stressed that African leadership “time and time again, has led the way, be it through expanding the definition of ‘refugee’ in 1969, or through the Kampala Convention, the first legally-binding framework to address internal displacement, which was adopted in 2009.” 

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
The Africa Dialogue Series 2019 opens at UN Headquarters in New York on 21 May 2019.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, said that by building strong coalitions of stakeholders, the series was an important element in the effort to boost international cooperation. With regard to the 2019 ADS theme, the UN chief paid tribute to the solidarity and hospitality of African countries, many of whom continue to set the global standard:  

“Countries like Uganda, Djibouti, Rwanda and Ethiopia are taking innovative action to recognize and promote the rights of refugees. And African countries played a key role in securing the approval of the Global Compact on Refugees last year,” he said. 

Mr. Guterres urged delegates to “consider the issue of displacement in the broadest context, in your search for sustainable and durable solutions,” taking into consideration international issues such as the global emergency of climate change, financing for development and universal health coverage. 

Deputy Secretary-General and former Nigerian Government minister, Amina Mohammed, told delegates: “You can count on the United Nations to be a strong partner for Africa…ensuring the involvement of youth as agents of change in all conflict resolution and political processes.”

She praised the recent Joint UN-African Union (AU) Frameworks on Peace and Security and Sustainable Development, noting they would “contribute to strengthening our shared efforts to promote inclusive sustainable development and tackle many of the drivers of conflict and forced displacement.”

 Ms. Mohammed called for all to “pledge today to keep working together to transform the narrative and transform the future for Africa, its young people and our world.”