Small chance for LRA peace deal
By Sarah Molaiepour
Interview with Professor Koen Vlassenroot
In October 2011 US president Barack Obama sent 100 military advisors to the Great Lakes region to support the Ugandan government’s efforts to combat the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an armed group accused of gross human rights violations in the DR Congo. Lately President Obama has been put under increasing pressure to deal with the LRA. The current prospect for future peace talks is, however, rather limited according to Professor Koen Vlassenroot, professor at Gent University and director of its conflict research group. Koen Vlassenroot gave the lecture “Doing business out of war: The Ugandan Army and the LRA in the DRC”, as part of the NAI-FOI lecture series in 2011.
What is the current status of the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) and the LRA in DR Congo?
– The last of its campaigns started in December 2008, when the UPDF entered against DR Congo and launched an attack on the LRA that at that time had its headquarters in Garamba National Park in northern DRC, just across the border from Sudan. This military strike, called Operation Lightning Thunder, was the outcome of a security agreement between Uganda, South Sudan and the DRC aimed at dislodging and ending the military activity of the LRA. Three years later, however, the LRA remains at large and is held responsible for killing and abducting hundreds of Congolese civilians and displacing many more. UPDF forces are still in the area yet have not been able to stop the LRA from terrorizing the local population. It is assumed that currently between 1,500 and 2,000 UPDF soldiers are involved in this operation, which is not reduced to the DRC.
– The LRA has been in the Congo since the end of 2005 and has since also moved to the Central African Republic, partly as a result of the UPDF led operation against the LRA that started in 2008 with Operation Thunder. It is assumed that a large part of the LRA is in the Central African Republic, including the rebel leader Joseph Kony but there are little pockets operating in Congo where they have been responsible in the last few years for the killing and abduction of hundreds of people and displacing many, many more.
What has stymied the peace process so far? And what are the current prospects for a negotiated agreement between the LRA and the Ugandan government?
– The official position is that Joseph Kony did not want to sign the peace agreement that was concluded in Juba during the peace process from 2006-2008. As a result, the peace talks have been considered as a failure even if the security situation during the peace process was much better than before or after the peace talks. The current prospect for future peace talks is rather limited. There seems to be consensus that the LRA should be dealt with militarily and, quite strikingly, even human rights organizations and big international NGOs have been supporting the idea of a military intervention. On the one hand it might make sense to have a military operation against the LRA but on the other hand, we should also be ready to deal with the humanitarian impact of such an operation, if we support it. So I think we should try to move away from this military logic to a more conclusive perspective which includes military pressure, which includes protection of the population, which would also open the communication line with the LRA, and hopefully one day there might be a security improvement and a negotiated peace. I think that would be far more constructive than sticking to a military strategy.
Could Obama’s recent deployment of 100 military advisers to the region and helping the UPDF in their fight against the LRA lead to any productive results in ending the conflict?
– The sending of US support to operations against the LRA is nothing new. The US has been supporting the UPDF for the last few years in its operations against the LRA. Is it going to make any difference? Probably yes. But it is rather unclear what will be the outcome of this campaign. It is certain that today the intelligence is much better that it was in 2008. But if we look at the previous operation of the Ugandan forces with the support of the Americans, I think we can conclude that these have been disastrous.
Considering the multitude of rebel groups that exist in the area, why so much focus on the LRA in particular?
– It’s a little bit going up and down. There was a lot of attention on the LRA during the peace talks, now it seems November 2011 was LRA-month again. The UN Security Council had a discussion on the LRA. The African Union has finally appointed a special envoy for this conflict. But one of the reasons the LRA is again high on the agenda is not due to the worsening of the humanitarian situation on the ground, which has been very bad for some time already. It is also explained by the increased pressure within, for instances, American society. Lots of advocacy groups have been campaigning against the LRA as being the biggest evil on Earth and one of the main reasons why this area remains so unstable. Several big American lobby campaigns have resulted in a growing awareness within American society, which has put some pressure on Obama to deal with the case.