DRC plunder case returns to haunt Uganda

Tuesday September 10 2013

By FREDERIC MUSISI & TABU BUTAGIRA

Uganda lost the case brought against it at the International Court of Justice by the Democratic Republic of Congo for plunder of its natural resources due to an avoidable mistake by defence attorneys, a senior official has said.

Justice Julia Sebutinde, whom the UN voted as a judge of the World Court in December 2011, in the first of an insider’s account on a verdict likely to cost the country $10 billion, said Uganda’s legal team erred when they submitted to the court as its evidence a report of a commission of inquiry chaired by Justice David Porter.

The said report confirmed pillage of DRC’s resources, but absolved implicated top Uganda government and military officials including President Museveni’s brother Salim Saleh whom a 2001 UN panel of experts named adversely in its report on illegal exploitation of Congo’s wealth.
It would appear the government acted in haste to clear the names of those close to the centre of power, and inadvertently ended up legally selling out the country.

Commenting on the Porter commission findings during a public lecture in Kampala on Friday, Justice Sebutinde wondered what more evidence Uganda needed to incriminate itself than admitting to the World Court that an inquiry it commissioned established Congo’s resources were looted. “One undoing was the famous [Justice David] Porter report, which I understand Uganda attached as its evidence [yet] he (Porter) himself had found plunder took place,” she said.

According to media reports, Uganda had by the time court ruled on the case in 2005 paid foreign lawyers representing it $865,000 besides expenses on the Attorney General and other officials. The DRC government subsequently made claims of $6-10 billion in compensation, a figure Kampala disputed.

On Friday, Justice Sebutinde said ICJ is preparing to determine the final reparation for the 1998-2003 war plunder since Kampala and Kinshasa failed to make headway in diplomatic negotiations authorised by court, mainly due to frosty political relations.

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“The damages to be paid to Congo will affect the lives of Ugandans who pay taxes. We should, therefore, be mindful of what our country gets into, and what it might lead us into,” she said, exhorting Ugandans not to live in the delusion that proceedings of the foreign won’t affect them.
ICJ is one of the six organs of the United Nations, and its verdicts are final and binding on states such as Uganda that submit to its jurisdiction.

During hearing of the case, Uganda made a counter-claim that DRC forces ransacked Uganda’s embassy in Kinshasa during the war and mal-treated Ugandan in violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Court, however, dismissed the counter-claim.

In Kampala, Foreign Affairs permanent secretary James Mugume said high-level political negotiation with DRC are still ongoing and was hopeful an agreement could be reached without the World Court having to determine it. He said: “We are currently at the verification stage [of the reparation claims], and when done then we shall go back and inform the court in Hague.”

The PS said there was no working figure for the compensation and the widely reported $10 billion fine was a media creation, and hinted the reparation payment could be swapped with expenses that Uganda incurs in diplomatic and security undertaking to stabilise the restive eastern Congo.

Charles Okoto, the DRC ambassador to Uganda, was not available for comment but his government has always wanted the payment expedited. Justice Sebutinde was in Uganda at the invitation of The Netherlands embassy in Kampala to, among other things, deliver a paper on the Role of International Law in promotion of global peace to mark 100 years of the existence of the Hague-headquartered Peace Palace.

She said the court’s President had cleared her to sit on the bench in 2014 when the Uganda-DRC case comes up for review, although her Ugandan nationality initially raised concerns of probable conflict of interest. Sebutinde said she would act without bias and stick to the laws, and that Kinshasa would be allowed to choose a judge to sit in to represent its interests.

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