Issue 36 - Article 1

Heading home? Protection and return in Northern Uganda

January 11, 2007
Diane Paul

In a surprise announcement on 30 October, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni declared that all internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Northern Uganda would return home by 31 December, and that all IDP camps would be closed. Twenty-nine resettlement officers had been recruited, Museveni said, and money had been set aside for resettlement costs. The government also asked the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist in planning for return. UNHCR agreed to conduct joint security assessments and to provide motorbikes and fuel to begin local assessments, with the understanding that freedom of movement would be respected and that all return would be voluntary. Following these assessments, the government is expected to designate areas where security could be provided to returnees.


At the time of writing, it is unclear whether the government has the capacity and will to meet this target, and whether the security situation will continue to provide a conducive environment for return. The situation is fluid and the ceasefire/peace process fragile. Instances of spontaneous return and a reduction in the number of attacks on civilians by the Lord’s Resistance (LRA) suggest hope for the future, but effective protection mechanisms must be put in place. However, despite nearly 20 years of war, the government has yet to commit adequate resources to protect or assist IDPs, and serious human rights abuses by the Ugandan army have continued virtually unchecked. The rule of law does not exist in the north due to a lack of police officers, judges and court personnel. While explained in large part by the violent environment caused by rebel attacks, neglect by the central government also plays a major role. Major towns in the north, although relatively safe, have no means of support due to the crumbling of the district tax base, and corruption is rampant. Funds donated in Kampala rarely make it to the districts.


The international community must share responsibility for this state of affairs. Museveni has not been held accountable for his actions (or his failure to act), despite donors providing a staggering 49–50% of Uganda’s annual budget, much of which goes towards military spending. Until recently, the UN appeared blind to the atrocities being committed against civilians, most of them children.


Museveni has manipulated humanitarians to provide assistance to his own citizens while allowing government officials to siphon off aid money. NGOs feel that the threat of expulsion hangs over them should any dare criticise the government too strongly. While some have challenged the government on rights abuses, humanitarian NGOs seem unable or unwilling to apply ‘do no harm’ principles to their continued assistance in the camps, where life for IDPs has proved untenable.


Many IDPs have found the courage to return, and as the number of returnees grows, so will the confidence of others to make a go of it. It is important to remember that, even if peace talks fail again, the past several years have demonstrated that people may be better off at home than in the camps. But they will need the help of their government, the humanitarian and development community, and the support of donors and diplomatic representatives to ensure that they have the secure environment and the tools necessary to rebuild their homes and their lives.


The Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF)


When the LRA stepped up its activities in Northern Uganda in the 1990s, the UPDF tried to counter its hit-and-run tactics by using Local Defence Units (LDUs), often made up of under-trained soldiers, including children. The LRA responded by bolstering its forces with abducted children, using boys as soldiers and girls as so-called ‘commander’s wives’ (sex slaves forced to bear the children of rebel fighters).


In an effort to drive out the LRA, the UPDF turned to a military strategy known as ‘draining the swamp’. Virtually the entire civilian population of Northern Uganda (upwards of 90% in some districts) were forced to relinquish their land and livestock and packed into IDP camps. The camps, referred to by the government as ‘protected villages’, quickly degenerated into squalid settlements made unfit for human habitation by disease and hunger.


Not only have the UPDF and LDUs (with some exceptions) failed to protect IDPs from repeated attacks by the rebels, but they have also committed many human rights violations themselves, particularly rape, but also beatings, torture and killings. A well-publicised study of sexual violence at the largest IDP camp in Northern Uganda, Pabbo Camp, found that ‘soldiers whose task is to protect camp residents … demand sex from women and girls in exchange for food, shelter, protection’. The study also revealed that parents were forcing some young girls into marriage in order to get men to provide for their them and their families. The UPDF has further undermined what little trust IDPs had in Museveni’s government by placing severe restrictions on freedom of movement in and around the camps, and setting strict curfews.


The role of the police


The police may represent the most promising prospect for progress in security and rule of law. Where they have been deployed, they seem to have developed fairly good working relationships with both IDPs and NGO and UN staff, although they are extremely under-resourced. There are few effectively trained police and fewer still receive regular or decent pay. Building an effective police force is a long-term project, and the UPDF will remain the de facto law enforcement body in the north for a few more years yet (especially as long as southern Sudan is unstable); planning must be realistic.


Freedom of movement

The army has claimed that curfews and restrictions on movement are necessary for the protection of IDPs, but many soldiers have used violations or perceived violations as an excuse to brutalise people. Rape, beatings (some fatal), detention, arrest and torture commonly occur in association with curfew or other movement ‘violations’.


Limitations on freedom of movement clearly surpass what is reasonable under the circumstances. IDPs have been prevented from accessing land to farm due to arbitrary restrictions prohibiting movement of certain distances from camp boundaries. A shortage of arable land near camps and the unwillingness of some UPDF units to provide escorts so that IDPs can tend their crops have meant that many are unable to provide for themselves and have become reliant on humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian access to camps has been limited due to security concerns. People have been forced by hunger to turn to survival mechanisms that are not only dangerous, but also humiliating and degrading, such as survival sex.


IDPs have also been prevented from protecting themselves. Individuals should be free to decide how to best provide and protect themselves and their families – whether to remain in their villages, hide in the bush to avoid attacks or take refuge in a camp.


According to UNHCR, its emphasis on freedom of movement has enabled the agency to ‘work with the UPDF in new ways to encourage them to provide security to areas, rather than only to camps, cordons and specific locations in parishes of origin’. UNHCR sees promoting freedom of movement as the beginning of a durable solution.


Health and social conditions

Overcrowding in camps means that shelters are close to one another, without due consideration for health and fire risks. Malaria, fever and two lango, a local term for an illness marked by oral thrush, malnutrition and diarrhoea, were found in one important study to be the primary causes of death in children under five in the camps. These deaths, combined with fatalities due to violence and the spread of HIV/AIDS (due in part to availability problems with condoms) have caused a high rate of excess mortality. An unknown number of deaths have been caused by fires in congested camps. Despite an influx of money after a major study of excess mortality (most of which went to the Ministry of Health and the district water departments), mortality rates remain excessively high in a number of camps.


Sexual violence has also been linked to poor conditions in the camps. Widespread shortages of water, food and cooking fuel force mostly girls and women to enter the bush to plant small gardens or to search for water and firewood, rendering them vulnerable to abduction by the LRA, and to rape by UPDF soldiers.


Finally, an entire generation has been deprived of a proper education. Tribal, village, clan and family structures have broken down, and with them traditional protection mechanisms.


Disarmament and reintegration


A well-thought-out disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) plan for the LRA and LDUs must be instituted as soon as possible. Uganda is part of the Multi-Country Demobilisation and Reintegration Programme (MDRP), a multi-agency, multi-country project focused on central Africa. But DDR plans for Uganda are still under development, although MDRP has supported the Amnesty Commission for some time. While the demobilisation of LRA ex-combatants has gone smoothly thus far, many important questions remain. Is there a neutral third party willing to act as an observer for disarmament? Would a large group of ex-LRA along with women and children be expected to repatriate to Uganda from Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo? What security guarantees will be given to LRA combatants who disarm? Will demobilised combatants all go through the transit centre process, and are centres prepared for an influx of mothers and children as well? How will tracing and family/community reconciliation be managed?




The responsibility for the security and wellbeing of returning IDPs properly rests with the Ugandan government. To enable return, the government must lift all its restrictions on freedom of movement, including curfews. Clear announcements that people are free to move out of the camps must be made, and the government must state that it will respect the voluntary nature of return. Although the UPDF has not demonstrated the capacity for responsible law enforcement, sufficient donor government pressure to stop abuses by UPDF soldiers might improve the situation, and special training should be considered. The government could also consider redeploying police from other parts of Uganda.


The UN also has an important role to play. As recommended by the International Rescue Committee and others, the UN is urged to appoint, without further delay, a Humanitarian Coordinator for Northern Uganda, based in the region. UNHCR and UNICEF are encouraged to assign additional protection officers to the districts, and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is urged to deploy additional human rights monitors to areas of return and where there are clusters of violations.


There must be a reporting mechanism in place for allegations of human rights abuse by the military against civilians. Cases involving IDPs as victims should be reviewed by UNHCR, OHCHR and the IDP Coordinator(s), with OHCHR taking the lead on following up cases alongside the Ugandan police. The UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinator should raise these cases with the government in Kampala. The recruitment and training of police from within the IDP population – and including women – is crucial for the future of rule of law in Northern Uganda, and should begin without delay.


Jurisdictional and criminal procedures should be clarified, and the UPDF should be urged to permit OHCHR to observe military trials relating to abuses perpetrated against civilians. UPDF officers serving as counsel or judges in military courts should receive training on due process and other human rights. Some paralegals have been trained through the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) to record case information and conduct other activities related to monitoring and reporting. This programme could be expanded with further support from the donor community.


World Food Programme (WFP) food for work projects that include the building or reconstruction of clinics and schools as part of the DDR programme might be a helpful reconciliation tool. If the public sees former combatants working on projects that benefit the community, this may smooth reintegration. Advance planning for even minimal health care is obligatory, even if all that can be provided initially are health promoters trained from within the IDP community. The World Health Organisation (WHO) should provide start-up kits for mobile health care workers. Finally, education has been one of the most neglected social issues in the north, yet represents the future of the children of Northern Uganda. The provision of housing and other incentives for teachers must be a priority.


Diane Paul is a specialist on the protection of civilians in armed conflict. She has been an aid worker and human rights researcher, and has conducted several major studies of protection, including Fulfilling the Forgotten Promise: Protecting IDPs in Northern Uganda (InterAction, 2006), and Growing the Sheltering Tree: Promoting and Protecting Rights through Humanitarian Action (InterAgency Standing Committee, 2002). Diane’s email address is



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