Global Policy Forum

Will Uganda Pay Up for Congo Occupation?

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By Henry Wasswa

Institute for War and Peace Reporting
July 26, 2007

As Uganda prepares to start negotiating with the Democratic Republic of Congo about reparations for plundering its neighbour's resources and committing atrocities there between 1996 and 2001, a senior official in Kampala has suggested the talks may end with no payment being made. In December 2005, the International Court of Justice, ICJ, in The Hague found the Ugandan state guilty of killing and torturing civilians, destroying villages and plundering natural resources during its five-year occupation of northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC. DRC claimed reparations of ten billion US dollars, but the compensation has to be worked out through bilateral negotiations between the two states. Analysts say it will be nearly impossible to enforce a compensation ruling, while experts on international law warn that the negotiating process could be so protracted that a settlement might take many years to conclude.


The DRC's case against Uganda to the ICJ alleged that Kampala was responsible for atrocities against civilians and plundering of its resources when it sent its troops to the north-east of the country, ostensibly to fight insurgents of northern Uganda's rebel Lord's Resistance Army who it said were based there. Kinshasa argued that Uganda entered and occupied its territory illegally. The ICJ is the primary judicial organ of the United Nations, and has operated in The Hague since 1946, resolving legal disputes between sovereign states. It is not to be confused with the Hague-based International Criminal Court, ICC, which began work only in 2002, and focuses on war crimes and crimes against humanity.

In their 2005 ruling, ICJ judges held that Uganda violated Congo's sovereignty by invading it, occupying territory in the northeastern province of Ituri, and providing military, financial and logistical support to Congolese rebels within the country between 1998 and 2002. The court also held that Uganda was responsible for the looting of gold, diamonds and silver and for human rights abuses carried out by Ugandan armed forces, including killings, torture and the training of child soldiers. The ICJ ordered Uganda to "make reparation.for the injury caused", but did not state a specific sum. Instead, the two countries were asked to negotiate an agreement and then go back to the ICJ. "That figure [10 billion dollars] was named but it was not conclusive," Ugandan regional cooperation minister Isaac Musumba told IWPR. "It will be discussed and arbitrated again." "What people should know is that we are moving towards the normalisation of diplomatic relations. We are working with the government of Congo and our presidents have talked. When they come, we will discuss. There is a likelihood that things will not escalate into problems, and we may even agree not to pay."

Both Uganda and Rwanda sent troops into what was then Zaire, removed the government of the late Mobutu Sese Seko and installed Laurent Kabila as president of DRC in 1997. Even though Kabila subsequently fell out with Rwanda and Uganda, both countries kept troops deployed in much of the east and northeast of the country. Laurent Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and was succeeded by his son Joseph Kabila, who is the current president of DRC. Both Rwanda and Uganda were accused of looting DRC's vast mineral and forest resources, and of arming various rival militias which resulted in ethnic slaughter in the Ituri region. The scale of the communal slaughter in Ituri has been compared in intensity if not scale with the violence seen in nearby Rwanda in 1994.

Lendu agriculturalists in Ituri regard themselves as kin to Rwanda's Hutus, while the cattle-herding Hema identify with the Tutsis. Just as the Hutus and the Tutsis fell into murderous conflict in Rwanda, the Lendu and Hema followed their example. Out of a population of about four million in Ituri, the United Nations estimates that more than 60,000 people have been killed in militia-led warfare since 1999, while half a million have been forced to flee their homes, encountering further violence in their flight. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, leader of a Hema militia called the Union of Congolese Patriots, was arrested and placed in custody by the DRC authorities following the killing and mutilation in February 2005 of nine Bangladeshi soldiers who were part of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Ituri.

The ICC was asked by DRC's government to investigate the situation in eastern Congo, and as a result Lubanga was sent to The Hague in March 2006. He is due to stand trial at the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The bewilderingly complex inter-ethnic conflict in Ituri - which extends beyond the Hema and Lendu to encompass at least 18 other groups such as the Bira, Gegere and Ngiti - was exacerbated by the Ugandan army, which backed the Hema when it virtually annexed the province in 1999 and plundered the region's rich mineral deposits.

Human Rights Watch has accused Uganda of playing "both arsonist and fireman" in Ituri. "During its four years occupying the northeastern DRC, the Ugandan army claimed to be a peacemaker in a region torn by ethnic strife," said the New York-based group. "In reality, the Ugandan army provoked political confusion and created insecurity in areas under its control. From its initial involvement in a land dispute between the Hema and Lendu, the Ugandan army more often aggravated than calmed ethnic and political hostilities." Human Rights Watch estimates that the Ugandan military stole more than nine million dollars' worth of Ituri gold between 1999 and 2003. "Uganda is the number one gold-exporting country in this area without having a single gold mine. Tell me how that happens?" said a military intelligence official with the United Nations, who added that Ituri's militias continue to feed the illegal trade.

As a result of international pressure, Uganda withdrew its soldiers from DRC in 2003, and United Nations peacekeepers were deployed there. Although the ICJ required that reparations be made, and indicated that it would rule on the matter should the two states fail to reach agreement, it remains far from clear how much - if anything - the Ugandan government will end up paying. "Congo took Uganda to the ICJ on grounds of economic and political meddling on its territory by Uganda," Godfrey Wanzira, a Kampala-based expert in international law, told IWPR. "The gist of the whole issue is that the DRC prayed for reparations."

Although DRC lawyers made what Wanzira calls "tentative mention" of 10 billion dollars, the fact that no settlement has been imposed or agreed means there is scope for the parties in the dispute both to negotiate and to fall out. "It has left the parties to negotiate, leaving room for a political settlement. The ICJ judges left areas hanging. A negotiated settlement might result, but if Uganda openly or indirectly fails to pay, this will start a series of diplomatic problems," he said. Wanzira said the ICJ had legal powers to make pronouncements about enforcing a settlement. "But how would the DRC's lawyers enforce the payments?" he asked. "Would they sell Uganda's assets in the Congo? Legally, it's possible to enforce an ICJ judgement but practically it is impossible to enforce. This could lead to a souring of relations or even war."

The lawyer noted that there were many similar pending judgments elsewhere in the world, and many of them ended in political settlements and trade-offs by the governments involved, rather than pay-outs. "Uganda may plead that the amount is too high and it will take years and years to reach an agreeable amount," he added. Ugandan officials say they previously held off on embarking on negotiations because they were waiting for an elected government in Kinshasa.

In 2006, DRC held its first democratic elections in at least 40 years, which saw a new parliament elected last July and Joseph Kabila voted in as president in an October run-off. "The Ugandan government has not paid any money to the DRC ever since the international court made the ruling since by that time [December 2005], there was no elected government," information minister Ali Kirunda Kivejinja told IWPR. "We have all along waited for an elected government in the DRC." In Wanzira's view, though, DRC officials may well suspect that Kampala will never pay reparations. Instead, he believes, they may have brought the ICJ case for "symbolic reasons, to make a point that these people were wrong to occupy our territory".


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