Students propose peace-promoting steps to Ugandan ambassador, UN, others.
August 14, 2008
In a report commissioned by a Ugandan ambassador, one dozen University of Pennsylvania Law School students are recommending that the war-torn nation modify its eight-year-old Amnesty Act, form a truth and reconciliation commission with subpoena powers, establish a special domestic court to prosecute rebel leaders as an alternative to the International Criminal Court, and recognize the special needs of women and children as Northern Uganda emerges from two decades of civil war. The students' completed their report one week after Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony failed to appear at a scheduled ceremony to sign the final cessation of hostilities agreement. Uganda should "deny amnesty to those individuals who are most responsible for serious crimes, especially the planning and executing of widespread, systematic or serious attacks directed against civilians," the students write. "Under the current act, an individual can receive amnesty for crimes committed after the signing of a peace agreement.... The continuous extension of the Act all but encourages commission of crimes against the Government and undermines peace." The students spent eight months studying the conflict--including two weeks in Uganda--and conducted five-dozen interviews with Ugandan victims, United Nations representatives, government officials, aid workers and journalists. In addition the students conducted extensive research into international criminal law and local customs related to justice in Uganda. They undertook the project in response to an invitation from Mirjam Blaak, Uganda's ambassador to the Netherlands, to Penn Law Professor William Burke-White, who teaches a seminar about the provision of justice in the wake of mass atrocity. "My seminar focuses on topics such as the interaction between domestic and international norms of justice and the tension between peace and justice," Burke-White said. "Often, achieving justice can be an obstacle to peace, because justice requires an accounting of misdeeds." The conflict between the Ugandan government and the Lord's Resistance Army unfortunately presented the class with a textbook example of a brutal and devastating atrocity, said one of the students, Erin Valentine. "The International Criminal Court's 2003 indictments of top LRA leaders have put significant pressure on the LRA to participate in the Juba peace talks and led to a relative peace in Northern Uganda." Valentine said. "But the preliminary agreement still must be converted into a final, comprehensive plan for a permanent peace." Most of the criminal charges to date have been filed against LRA fighters; relatively few government soldiers have been tried in closed-door military tribunals. The government should disclose the results of those trials "in order to move beyond victor's justice to a comprehensive and just peace," said student Nicholas Bentley. "Every one of our recommendations and every decision that Uganda makes has implications for the entire region because the conflict is reaching across borders," added student Alison Stein. During their visit to Uganda, the students came somewhat close to talking with one of the LRA's leaders when a person with whom they were visiting placed a call to the rebel fighters. "But we only reached whoever it is who answers his phone when he's sleeping," said student Sarah Ashfaq. "These students signed up last fall for a three-credit seminar," said the professor, Burke-White. "None of us imagined the long days or the all-night debates in Kampala as we compared notes on our interviews and talked about what we should recommend to the Ugandan government. This was an incredible effort by these students." The trip was funded by a donation from Richard G. Corey, a principal of Kingdom Zephyr, a private equity fund investment manager focused on Sub-Saharan Africa, and 1974 Law School alumnus. "I hope that the insights the students gained from their trip and the recommendations that they are making will contribute to a lasting peace in Northern Uganda," Corey said. "These young scholars are among our best and the brightest upcoming legal minds, and I was delighted to help them try to make a difference in the world." The students presented their findings and recommendations to Penn Law School faculty and students in April and will make presentations to representatives of nongovernmental organizations; the U.S. State Department and Congress; and the Ugandan government in May.