It’s rare that human rights activists get truly excited about anything happening in Washington, let alone celebratory. But that is not the case this week as yesterday the US took a step forward in helping end Africa’s longest running conflict with the House of Representatives passing the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act (full text available here). The Senate already passed the bill by unanimous consent so it will now go to President Obama to sign into law. Once that happens, the administration will have 180 days to present a viable strategy to Congress on how to deal with the LRA and its leader, Joseph Kony.
The conflict in Northern Uganda between the LRA and the Ugandan government has been going on since the late 1980s as a remnant of the Ugandan Bush Wars. It is perhaps best known for the tens of thousands of child abductees that make up the bulk of its forces and the conflict’s displacement of over 90% of Northern Uganda’s population, both as a result of the actual conflict and the government’s failed attempts to deal with it. Until recently, the conflict went largely ignored by the international community, leaving the head of UN Humanitarian Affairs to dub it the “world’s biggest neglected crisis” in 2004.
Shortly after that statement was made, several new developments brought Northern Uganda into the public spotlight. Most notably, the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Sudanese government and Southern Sudan in 2005 gave hope for stability in the region and placed pressure on the LRA in their traditional hiding areas in Sudan. Likewise, the increased involvement of UN peacekeeping forces in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo highlighted the destructive nature of foreign groups like the LRA to peace prospects in the DRC. Meanwhile, grassroots movements like the Invisible Children campaign educated a new generation of Westerns on this conflict and urged them to do more while the indictment of the entire top tiers of the LRA leadership by the International Criminal Court raised awareness among scholars, lawyers, and policymakers. Yet, despite the new international interest in the conflict, numerous military operations, and marathon peace negotiations, the conflict continues across central Africa in a case where close in never going to be good enough.
Enter the LRA Bill. Introduced last year and supported by activist groups such as Resolve Uganda and The Enough Project, it requires the US government to make resolving this conflict a higher priority than it has been and put forth a concrete and viable plan to actually do so while also focusing on the protection and empowerment of civilians in Northern Uganda.
That may seem simple, but the significance of this bill should not be overlooked. After all, as noted by Jonathan Broder in Congress Quarterly, “It’s not every day that liberals, humanitarian groups and theologians support a bill that could deepen U.S. military involvement in the most violent corners of Africa.” In many ways, this is “responsibility to protect” — American style. Given the misgivings that most American policymakers have had towards R2P, that alone is significant. But add in that the LRA Bill is the most co-sponsored policy bill so far in this Congressional session and the most co-sponsored bill regarding Africa in US history and it becomes clear how momentous yesterday’s vote is, not just for Northern Uganda but for US foreign policy in general.
Of course, passing a bill does not make wishes into reality. How effective this bill is will depend largely on the strategy that the Obama administration presents to Congress in six months time. Despite assurances by some members of Congress that the LRA Bill does not equal support for a military solution, there are others who see no other real option given Kony’s refusal to sign the Juba Peace Agreement after two years of painstaking negotiation. With the LRA’s history of retaliating against civilians for battlefield losses, any type of military approach could make things far worse before they get better. The success of this bill if put into action will be based on how well the US is able to come up with a plan that fulfills the two main purposes of the bill: the protection of civilians and the permanent neutralization of Joseph Kony.
Nonetheless, regardless of the if, when, and how of ending this conflict, it is important to look beyond Joseph Kony in finding a lasting solution to the violence. That is why the bill includes funding and aid provisions for justice and reconciliation efforts, rebuilding activities, and rehabilitation programs for former combatants who are often victims just as much as they are perpetrators in this conflict. As noted by Senator Russ Feingold last year, “Ultimately, as we have seen with so many other conflicts, our success may depend less on how we end the violence and more on how we build the peace.”
That peace has the potential to give Northern Ugandans back their lives free of the fear that has defined the region for more than two decades. It can reintegrate the region with the rest of Uganda which has rapidly developed since coming out of war in the 1980s while Northern Uganda has stood still. It can allow Acholi and Langi children to have childhoods again, free of the abductions they know now. And every step taken towards possibly realizing any of those things is definitely something to get excited about.
Originally published on Foreign Policy Blogs