The conflict in northern Uganda cost the lives of tens of thousands of civilians between 1986 and 2008. As the legal proceedings against Ongwen and Kwoyelo take one step forward and two steps back, the debate about dealing with the past and transitional justice rages on. Yet, thousands of victims remain hidden from it, the missing. Some 10,000 to 15,000 persons abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) are still missing years after the end of conflict, many of whom were children at the time of their abduction.
Their families want closure. They can only have peace when the remains of their loved ones have been laid to rest in a dignified way. This is not only human nature, but traditional cultural practices demand that the final resting place be close to the homestead and burial rites be performed by their families. The abduction of children has had a disproportionate impact on family members in Uganda, particularly where parents have lost their child as a source of support in their old age. August 30 each year marks the International Day of the Disappeared, a day to reflect and to draw attention to the fate of those missing around the world.
In other countries facing large numbers of disappearances, commissions have been set up to analyse the causes, development, and patterns of the conflict, as well as, where possible, locate and recover the remains of those missing. The Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared (CONADEP) acted in unison with local human rights organisations, who turned over information they had collected during the military regime.
Although it lacked power to compel testimony and did not hold public hearings, the CONADEP documented nearly 9,000 cases of forced disappearance based on more than 7,000 statements. Its report became a best-seller, shifting the public opinion on the military regime. More than 30 years since the return of democracy, children born in captivity or appropriated from their detained parents and remains are still being recovered as a result of the investigations carried out by this body together with ongoing the legal proceedings.
In 2000, Colombia established the National Search Commission for Disappeared People, leading to the creation of a registry of disappeared persons, a DNA bank as well as a protocol for the dignified return of remains to their families. Nevertheless, it was the Justice and Peace Process that opened the door for the large-scale recovery of remains in Colombia. Exchanging lower sentences for information on the missing, the Office of the Prosecutor has recovered more than 9,000 victims. Where remains are recovered, the government supports their return in collective or private ceremonies and covers the cost of the burials in accordance with the wishes of the families.
The Independent Commission for the Location of Victims Remains in Northern Ireland used an ‘use-immunity’ to encourage individuals responsible in disappearances to come forward. While this was not an amnesty, it ensured that any information given to the commission could not be used against an individual in criminal or civil proceedings. Any information arising from other sources, such as witnesses, could be used to prosecute an individual for disappearances. There is currently one such ongoing case in Belfast involving the disappearance of Jean McConville, a mother of 10.
Uganda needs to establish a commission on the missing with sufficient resources and capacity to do the technical work of locating and identifying the remains. This would involve collecting information from witnesses, combatants and survivors of the location of clandestine burial sites, location teams involving dogs and ground radar devices, as well as forensic anthropologists to recover and forensically and DNA test the remains and return these in a dignified manner.
Compared to other countries, this work would be complicated by geography and the nature of the conflict in Uganda. The LRA abducted tens of thousands of individuals and often marched them into their camps in neighbouring countries, meaning that remains may be spread across northern Uganda, CAR, DRC and South Sudan. In addition, the terrain the LRA operated in, is often densely forested and remote. These difficulties notwithstanding, the experience elsewhere shows it is possible.
The question seems to be one of creating the right institutional mechanisms and providing those who may have information with the right incentive to come forward. This would include financial incentives for former LRA combatants as well as a ‘use of immunity’ that anything they said could not be used against them in legal proceedings. While there is a cost to recovering the remains of the missing, such post-conflict work is necessary to ensure basic humanity and respect for the dead as well as ease the suffering and acknowledge the loss suffered by their families.
Dr Moffett is senior lecturer and director of the Human Rights Centre, School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland.