When the government introduced an Amnesty Bill in 1998, it was revisiting an old political formula of offering pardons to insurgents as a means of ending intractable conflict. Previous de facto and de jure amnesties under the National Resistance Movement (NRM) had offered general and specific pardons to groups that had engaged in rebellion, notably the UPDM/A and the UPF/UPA. The Amnesty Statute of 1987, which was passed by the National Resistance Council (NRC), professed to encourage various fighting groups and sponsors of insurgency to cease their activities. In particular, the statute targeted ‘Ugandans in exile who are afraid to return home due to fear of possible prosecution’. Under the statute, four offences – genocide, murder, kidnapping and rape – were considered too heinous to be included under the amnesty. Similarly, the subsequent 1998 Statute also sought to exclude certain offenders from amnesty.
Subjecting all the LRA members to a formal prosecution did not seem, to many people, a valid or effective alternative. Thus, when in January 2000 the government introduced a new Amnesty Act, it was building on tradition and responding to the expressed wishes of the people of Uganda – particularly those of the people of Acholi whose specific concerns were incorporated into the law.
In a memorandum to the government, Acholi Religious Leaders’ Peace Initiative (ARLPI), reflecting the aspirations of the people of Acholi at home and in the diaspora, rejected the partial proposals and strongly advocated the adoption of a general amnesty. Their draft was in fact to form the basis of the current Amnesty Act. Advocates of the comprehensive amnesty saw that any threats of prosecution, even of a minority of combatants, would pose an obstacle to peaceful resolution of the conflict. The government’s own findings were that there was solid support for the proposed law. Although the enactment of the Amnesty Act may have coincided with the Nairobi Accord between Uganda and Sudan, the groundwork and the discussions had preceded that particular initiative.
Under the Act, ‘amnesty’ means a pardon, forgiveness, exemption or discharge from criminal prosecution or any other form of punishment by the state’. In translating the word ‘amnesty’ into Acholi the word ‘Kica’, which also means forgiveness, has been used. This expression has caused difficulties with the LRA resenting the suggestion of guilt and submission. Since they were not party to the formulation of the law, the Act still needs to be more fully explained to the LRA.
For the individual, the greatest significance of the amnesty law is a legal one: it confers upon the beneficiaries of the amnesty an irrevocable legal immunity from prosecution or punishment. Under the Act, amnesty is extended to cover all insurgency-related offences ranging from combat to collaboration and aiding rebellion. Once a person has renounced insurgency that person can never again be charged for the same offence. However, under legislation now being introduced by the government, if, after receiving amnesty, another insurgency offence is committed, he or she will not be protected from prosecution for the subsequent offence. The immunity from future prosecution for previous offences is also underwritten by the Ugandan Constitution (Article 25(10) 1995), which protects a person granted a pardon from any prosecution or punishment. While it is effective within the country, the amnesty does not protect a person outside the borders of Uganda.
Under international law, the increasing trend is to require states to prevent and punish crimes against humanity, and the already restricted space for an international jurisprudence of amnesty to emerge is set to become even more limited. In northern Uganda this has posed a dilemma, particularly for international agencies protecting children’s rights. Most have had to recognise the complexities of attributing moral guilt against the background of extensive and prolonged abduction. With the added limitations and risks of military operations quite apparent, the alternative of an amnesty and reconciliation process becomes even more attractive.