The Pragmatic Imperative of Pursuing Victims’ Justice in the Rwenzori Region

Synopsis: In every scheme of violence and conflict reside a perpetrator (s) and a victim (s) within varying degrees. These perpetrators and victims may interchangeably assume perpetrator and victim positions and/or may concurrently assume these positions. Building on the 2014 and 2016 violent attacks in the Rwenzori region, this reflection postulates that the pursuit of justice whether legal or otherwise, has oftentimes pushed victims of conflict and violence to the periphery. In this relegation of victims, perpetrators of violence and conflict and/or powerful victims of conflict and violence have tended to be elevated (by actors in the justice system) or to elevate themselves to a centre stage and thus, benefit more from the post-conflict justice systems and processes. Enterprises of relegation and elevation have subsequently rendered sustainable peace fallacious and hybrid to the extent the pursuit and realization of peace fails to address victims’ needs. At worst, the neglect of victims risks reproducing injustices that first and foremost occasioned conflicts and violence and/or creating new injustices that will keep communities enveloped in vices of mistrust, violence and conflict.

This reflection defines a victim of violent conflict and expounds on the needs of victims as defined by the EU.[1] The reflection then juxtaposes these victims’ needs with the government and non-government interventions after 2014 and 2016 violence. Finally, the reflection makes recommendations on how best to maximize victims’ justice in on-going and future peace and justice efforts in the Rwenzori region.

Understanding victims of violence and needs of victims; It may be complex to precisely define a victim or a perpetrator of violent conflict. This complexity resides in the practical possibility of different actors concurrently assuming victim and perpetrator positions and in most cases, competing to assume the position of victim while denying the position of perpetrator. In light of this complexity, this reflection relies on the standard of observable victimhood manifested in forms of—human displacement, human death, physical injury inflicted on persons and loss of property. Arguably not a perfect standard to determine who a victim is since a perpetrator of violence may also suffer worst consequences of violence, observable victimhood by and large provides a loose framework within which we can attempt to debate matters of victims and injustices that accompany victimhood.

According to the EU,[2] victims’ needs vary from victim to victim. Victim differences notwithstanding, the EU groups needs of victims into the following five broad categories.

  • Respectful treatment and recognition as victims, both within the justice system and more widely by society;
  • Protection from intimidation, retaliation and further harm by the accused or suspected and from harm during criminal investigations and court proceedings, such as avoiding repeated interviewing of the victim;
  • Support, including immediate assistance following a crime, longer-term physical and psychological assistance and practical assistance during proceedings to help victims understand, participate and reduce their distress;
  • Access to justice to ensure that victims are aware of their rights and understand them both linguistically and legally are able to provide additional information and to participate in proceedings; and
  • Compensation and restoration, whether through financial damages paid by the State or by the offender or through mediation or other form of restorative justice that allow victims to face the accused, with a view of reaching a voluntary agreement between them on how to repair the harm to the victim.

In light of the above victims’ needs, we need to interrogate how post-2014 and 2016 interventions addressed and/or are addressing these needs and how victims’ justice can inform current and future peace activism. In this interrogation, we need to first take stock of the four intermittent schemes of violence that have characterized the Rwenzori region since 2014 namely;

  • 5th and 6th July 2014 simultaneous attacks that rocked Ntoroko, Bundibugyo and Kasese districts leaving over 100 people dead and scores more injured.
  • Post 2016 election violence in Bundibugyo and Kasese districts that claimed over 40 lives both in Kasese and Bundibugyo districts and resulted into the wanton destruction of property and displacement of citizens.
  • A seemingly family feud experienced in September 2016 in Kabonero Sub County in Kabarole district that fast degenerating into an interethnic conflict and placed the mountainous parts of the district at the brink of violence. The Kabonero violence claimed 5 lives and made others flee their homes to places they considered to be safer.
  • In September 2016, two police officers were reported killed in Bukara Village, Kabonero Sub-county, Kabarole District by what was then referred to as criminal gangs. The unfortunate follow-up incident of fatal violence involved the death of Private Muhamad Muranda – a UPDF soldier attached to the 3rd Division in Moroto District.
  • In the week commencing 21st November, 2016, Rwenzori region, specifically the districts of Kabarole and Kasese, experienced horrendous schemes of violence. These schemes largely started on November 24th, 2016 in Kamabale Village in Karangura Sub-county, Kabarole District, resulting into the death of 4 military personnel and 8 civilians. The response military operation extended to the district of Kasese, resulting into unprecedented casualties both on November 26th and November 27th, 2016.
  • On November 26th, there was a fire exchange between Uganda government military personnel and royal guards of Obusinga Bwa Rwenzururu (OBR) at the office of the OBR Prime Minister. On this same day, 19 people are reported to have died and a police pick-up truck torched in Kisinga Sub-county, Kasese District. On November 27th, 2016, the military intervention at the palace of Omusinga (King of Rwenzururu Kingdom) reportedly left 46 royal guards and 14 security personnel dead. Omusinga and at least 139 royal guards were arrested and transferred to Kampala/Jinja, Bushenyi, Ntungamo and Ibanda for detention. On 29th November, Omusinga was arraigned before the Jinja Chief Magistrate’s Court and charged with murder.

Both government and non-government actors responded and continue to respond to the above schemes of violence in different ways including among others; conducting dialogue meetings, sending peace messages on media, meeting key stakeholders to call for peace, collecting and distributing relief items and visiting conflict sites. Particularly, the government undertook the following interventions;

  • Convening a meeting in December 2014 in Mubende district between His Majesty Omusinga Charles Wesley Mumbere and His Highness Omudhingiya Martin Kamya to discuss about peace in the Rwenzori region. The Two principals made commitments to contribute to peace and harmony in the region. Chrispus Kiyonga, the Minister of Defense then, convened this meeting on behalf of the central government.
  • Pursuing legal justice both after the July 2014 and November 2016 violence.
  • Conducting a meeting between His Majesty Omusinga Charles Wesley Mumbere and His Highness Omudhingiya Martin Kamya following the 2016 violence. Capt. Mike George Mukula, the government facilitator represented the central government. The two principal cultural leaders signed a Royal Communiqué on April 14th 2016 at Mountains of the Moon Hotel in Fort Portal committing themselves to contributing to peace and non-violence in the Rwenzori region.
  • While pursing dialogue under the guidance of Capt. Mukula, the government, on the other hand, initiated a military approach to resolving violence and conflict, by launching a military operation code-named Usalama Rwenzori.
  • Meeting local communities to discuss how to resolve geo-ethno political tensions.

While not questioning the relevancy of government-led interventions after 2014 and 2016 violent conflicts, there is still need to explore how these interventions reconciled with the notion and practice of victims’ justice. In this exploration, we need to juxtapose interventions with the needs of victims. In this juxtaposition, the following are pertinent.

  1. Non-representation of victims; non-involvement of victims in the high level discussions and deliberations in Mubende in 2014 and in the formulation of the April 14th 2016 Royal Communiqué in Fort Portal.
  2. Clarity of needs; The April 14th 2016 Royal Communiqué in Fort Portal omits key and urgent challenges affecting victims of violence and focuses more on issues of cultural institutions.
  3. The government-led military operation and the pursuance of legal justice, justified as they may be, have not addressed the interest of restorative justice, including compensation of victims and close relatives of dead victims and restoring impaired civilian-civilian relations.
  4. Non-recognition of victims in forms of giving victims a voice to tell their stories as one way of fostering healing and reconciliation.
  5. Focus more on reconciling high level institutions and personalities and less on reconciling grassroots communities and individuals.

How do we promote victims’ justice now and in the future? In all peace and justice efforts, the following measures should be undertaken to maximize victims’ justice.

  1. Ensure representation of victims in all peace and justice efforts: The current practice by government and other non government actors of engaging cultural, political, religious leaders and other stakeholders to pursue justice needs to be democratized. In this democratization process, there is an urgent need to map out all victims of violence and have these victims represented in all peace discussions and in the implementation of actions meant to further peace and justice.
  2. Mapout victims of violence: The central government should mapout all victims of violence and deliberately undertake measures to compensate these victims and foster intra and inter-community healing and reconciliation.
  3. Locate and account for each victim of violence: The central government should locate and account for each victim of violence as one way of guaranteeing easy access to these victims and/or to the closest relatives of victims by humanitarian agencies and other peace actors.
  4. Document key challenges and needs of victims of violence: The central government and non-government actors should document key challenges and needs of victims every time violent conflicts emerge as a starting point for placing victims at the centre of peace and justice efforts.
  5. Pursue both legal and restorative forms of justice: The government and other peace actors need to appreciate the fact that legal justice in most cases tends to focus more on punishing the offender and NOT on compensating the victim. To remedy this inadequacy, the government and other actors should in addition to pursuing legal justice strive to reach out to victims of violence and offer them relevant practical and strategic remedies.

By Tuhaise Francis/Coordinator/Rwenzori Forum for Peace and Justice

End

[1] Refer to; http://ec.europa.eu/justice/criminal/victims/rights/index_en.htm

[2] Ibid

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