A Brief Introduction to the Conflict in Northern Uganda
The nation of Uganda has for over two decades been hailed as one of the African continent's greatest success stories - in the words of many international onlookers, "a model of democracy and development" (Branch, 3). During this same period, however, the country has also been home to a vicious civil war, a conflict that former UN Under-Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland in 2003 christened "the most forgotten crisis in the world" (Allen, 73). 
While southern Uganda has largely flourished, much of the north  has been ravaged by the ruthless attacks of the Lord's Resistance Army, a semi-spiritual rebel group ostensibly committed to overthrowing the Ugandan government and ruling the nation by the ten commandments, but which in practice has spent the past two decades preying on the very people it claims to represent (HRW: The Scars of Death, 4). Since the early 1990's, when its initial civilian support base began to dwindle, the group has sustained itself through the brutal abduction of the local population's children  (Branch, 15). The army is infamous for its bloody massacres of entire villages and for the cold-blooded way in which it dehumanizes its abductees, turning them from carefree children into brutal, unquestioning killers: LRA abductees are often forced to hack their own families to death with machetes and made to beat to death fellow child soldiers who disobey orders; they must either kill or be killed, and the ruthlessness of the acts they are forced to carry out serves to psychologically sever them from their families and pasts. In addition, the group is known for terrorizing civilian populations through the severing of limbs, slicing off of ears and lips, gouging out of eyes (Branch, 16-7). 
According to Human Rights Watch, the actions of the LRA constitute "a blatant violation of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949," which establishes the minimum constraints on the conduct of all parties in an internal conflict. In particular, the Article requires the humane treatment of non-combatants; specifically forbidding murder, mutilation, torture, or the taking of hostages. (HRW: The Scars of Death, 3)
It is tempting to begin an explanation of the war waged in northern Uganda by the LRA, sometime in the mid-1980's. It is more tempting still, to describe the conflict as the case of a deranged cult of rebels inexplicably turning on their own tribe. The true roots of the situation, however, are not nearly so simple - they run both deeper and more tangled than anyone might at first glance suspect...
Riding the bus from the capital city of Kampala to the northern Ugandan town of Gulu, you can recognize exactly where the prosperous southern part of the nation ends and where Uganda's northern regions begin. Sometime during the fourth hour of the journey, the frothing white waters of the Nile River unfurl before you and you find yourself facing the Karuma Falls Bridge. As your bus trundles its way towards the opposite bank of the river, you can already feel the road beneath you beginning to change - the pavement giving way to potholes, ditches, and in some stretches, simply ragged, dusty earth.
And then you are in the north, and immediately, things are different. There are few towns, almost no farmsteads, and what houses you do see are run down and - in some parts - abandoned, or worse, burned to the ground. Even the people you pass on the road are different: dark skinned, with striking cheekbones, flat noses, and almost slanted eyes. They look nothing like people you meet on the streets in Kampala, with their brown skin tones and soft features. At your first stop, as hawkers flock to the sides of the bus you hear that the language has changed too: now full of dipping nasals and muffled affricates, it is utterly undecipherable to anyone accustomed to the clear, easy sing-song of the nation's southern tongues. 
The cultural and ethnic gaps between these two regions are age-old. In part, they are the result of several centuries of separation by geographical barriers (primarily the Nile River). The discrepancies in development and quality of life, however can be traced back to British colonial methods of administration and the repercussions they have had since the end of British control, in 1962 (International Center For Transitional Justice, 44).
The British were the first to treat the two regions as a single polity, taking ethnic groups that felt no connection to one another and placing them under a single system of administration (Sonnenberg, 5). Within this system, southerners were promoted to positions of low-level civil service in governing institutions, while northerners were forced to serve as foot soldiers in military units. As a result, the major urban, industrial, and educational centers developed in the south, while the north remained largely uneducated and entrenched in a lifestyle of manual work and subsistence farming. (Okello Lecture) The trends set down under colonialism continued after independence and up to the present day - contributing, among other things, to contemporary southern notions of northern backwardness and inferiority (Sonnenberg, 6).
In the decades since independence, Uganda has witnessed a veritable ping-pong match of regional power grabbing. As political control has bounced back and forth between the northern and southern parts of the country, groups on all sides have suffered in a dizzying cycle of ethnic repression and retribution. (Sonnenberg Lecture)
During the first half of the 1980's the country was ruled by two northern presidents (Milton Obote, a Langi, and later Tito Okello, an Acholi). Both presidents faced major opposition from southern resistance groups. Obote reacted with a severe crackdown on the Luwero Trinagle - a region known to harbor and support several rebel groups. (Allen, 29) Using the army (still largely composed of northerners, as it had been in colonial times), they massacred as many as 500,000 southern Ugandans (Sonnenberg, 7).
In 1986, Okello was overthrown by southerner Yoweri Museveni (Ugandan president to this day), who proceeded to retaliate by driving all soldiers of northern background back to their home territories, and even as far as Sudan (Allen, 29-30). Although there was at this time no consolidated rebellion against the new government, Museveni persisted in a quest to smother what he viewed as potential for northern revolt. In this manner, as Adam Branch puts it, the government's "counterinsurgency [...] brought forth an insurgency": feeling abused and threatened by government forces, many Acholi civilians initially supported the burgeoning Lord's Resistance Army (still known then by a host of other names). It was only with time, as people started to see that this rebel force was not in fact succeeding in protecting them from government assault, that their support began to wane. (Branch, 19) By then however, the LRA had gained strength and momentum. Considering any Acholi who did not actively support them an enemy and government collaborator, the rebel group proceeded to turn on its own people.
In 1996, the Ugandan People's Defense Force (or UPDF, as the Ugandan national army is more commonly called) began relocating Acholi civilians into Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps (Branch, 19). Though ostensibly established for the population's safety, the camps created dire problems of their own. Protection tended to be inadequate and humanitarian conditions within the camps soon deteriorated alarmingly. By the early 2000's the rate of preventable deaths among the IDP camp inhabitants reached 1,000 a week (Finnström, 133), yet the threat of LRA attacks and abductions remained so great that no one could risk returning home.
In December 2003, with the conflict in the north of his country about to enter its eighteenth year, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni turned to the International Criminal Court (ICC) with a plea for help (Allen, 1). Unable to bring an end to the atrocities of the LRA, Museveni requested that the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) "investigate the situation concerning the Lord's Resistance Army" (Allen, 1).
Although, established in 1998, the jurisdiction of the ICC had only actually been in effect for a year and a half (Allen,1-2). The institution was designed to hold individuals, rather than states, accountable for three types of crimes: crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide (Sonnenberg 12). And the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), with its founder Joseph Kony and a small group of co-commanders at the helm, was believed to have engaged heavily in at least two of these three. It was therefore seen as a suitable subject for ICC investigation.
Thus, on January 29, ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo appeared at a joint press conference with President Yoweri Museveni. Together they announced the International Criminal Court's intention of investigating the situation in northern Uganda  (International Center For Transitional Justice, 18). It was to be the ICC's first ever case (Allen,1).
In July of 2005, after a period of research, the ICC issued warrants against Joseph Kony and the top four commanders  of the Lord's Resistance Army (Allen, 182-3). A full discussion of the ICC's subsequent role in this conflict would constitute a fairly large detour. To date, the case remains open, with no suspects apprehended, and the Court's conduct in the area continues to be the subject of much passionate and heated debate. Controversy aside, however, the ICC's involvement in northern Uganda has certainly drawn attention to the region and its plight. In addition, it was a probably a factor in the launch of the most recent peace process between the government of Uganda and the LRA - though it may also have contributed to its ultimate dissolution.
On July 14, 2006 the government of Uganda entered into a round of peace talks with representatives of the LRA. The talks, which were held in Juba under the mediation of Southern Sudanese vice president Riek Machar, were by no means the first attempt at a peace process between the rebels and the central government. They did, however, appear to be the most promising. On August 26 the warring parties signed a ceasefire and agreed that LRA troops would begin to assemble at two designated points along the Sudan-Uganda border. The agreement led to the longest lull in violence since the war's outbreak, two decades earlier. It also set the stage for negotiations concerning a long-term ceasefire, disarmament, reintegration, and accountability. (Nyakairu "Counting the gains, losses of Juba peace talks")
The talks lasted for over two years but eventually broke down after Joseph Kony failed, repeatedly, to show up for the signing of the final agreement. Though he cited fear over the ICC indictment as his reason for withdrawing from negotiations, it is unclear how strong his commitment to the peace process had ever truly been.
Following the dissolution of the peace process, LRA troops withdrew into several remote areas in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In December of 2008, Ugandan, Congolese, and South Sudanese military forces embarked on a joint campaign against the rebel army. The offensive failed to yield many positive results and the LRA retaliated with brutal attacks on civilian populations in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo. In a set of attacks now known as the Christmas Massacres the army killed hundreds of villagers (HRW: DR Congo: LRA Slaughters 620 in "Christmas Massacres"), and forced 20,000 more to flee their homes (BBC, Christmas Massacres "Killed 400"), in a matter of days.
As of late 2009 the LRA remains highly active. In the past several months it has committed numerous atrocities (including widespread abductions and massacres) in parts of Southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic. Recent reports indicate that it may also be expanding its reach into Chad (Press TV: LRA fleeing to Chad: Ugandan army). While northern Uganda is experiencing a period of relative calm, the conflict is far from over; Kony shows no inclination towards further negotiations or surrender; and peace is still a long way off.
1It is important to note that since the Lord's Resistance Army's inception the conflict has spread to several other countries. Today, the LRA is primarily active in parts of Southern Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (with reports, as of October 2009, of a movements into Chad). Because IYEP operates in the Ugandan district of Gulu, the conflict's effects within Uganda are most relevant to an understanding of the organization's work.
2 Specifically: the districts of Gulu, Kitgum, and Pader (home to the Acholi ethnic group); and to a lesser - yet still significant - degree, Apac, Lira, Katakwi, and Soroti (inhabited mostly by Lango and Ateso peoples). (Anderson, 10)
3 The exact number of child abductees will never fully be known. As of 2005, UNICEF placed its estimate of abducted children at 30,000 (Anderson, 15). A more recent report asserts, however, that the LRA has abducted at least 66,000 people between the ages of 14 and 30 (UNICEF Uganda, 69).
4 LRA abuses are extensively documented in many NGO reports - including Human Rights Watch's September 1997 report The Scars of Death (see pages 3-29). In personal communications with former LRA child soldiers - two friends of mine who would prefer to remain nameless - I have heard accounts of pregnant women being sliced open and forced to bleed to death with their fetuses torn out; children being made to eat body parts from their slaughtered relatives; child soldiers being forced to punish a comrade by biting him to death; and much more...
5 These mutilations are meant as punishments for civilians and are supposedly tailored to fit the crime: biking (which the LRA has "outlawed" because it can be used as a means of spreading information about the army's movements) results in the loss of one's legs; hearing something one was not supposed to hear, results in the loss of one's ears; seeing a something one was not intended to see may cost one one's eyes, etc. (Branch 16-17)
6 The people of northern Uganda are in fact ethnically, linguistically, and culturally much more closely related to the population of Southern Sudan than they are to their present-day compatriots in southern Uganda (Sonnenberg, 5). The languages spoken in this region belong to the Nilotic family and are completely unintelligible to Ugandan southerners, who speak languages from the Bantu linguistic family. (http://www.ethnologue.com/show_country.asp?name=UG)
7 In fact, more than two people held the post of president during this period. Those mentioned here were the two with the longest terms in office, during that time. Some individuals maintained power for only a matter of days.
8 The events in the Luwero Triangle account for much of the southern region's hostility towards northerners - and specifically the Acholi people - today. Most of the killing was carried out by Acholi foot soldiers (acting, incidentally under the orders of officers from the Lango ethnic group - who are nevertheless not associated with the Luwero massacres in popular thought). This has given rise to the common southern sentiment that "the only good Acholi is a dead Acholi." (Okello Lecture)
9 At least 1.5 million people were displaced in this operation (Branch, 19), with over 93% of the population of Gulu District ending up in camps (United States Agency for International Development, 15).
10 The International Criminal Court was established in June 1998, when 121 of the 148 states present at the Rome Conference signed the Court's founding statute. Its jurisdiction however only became effective on July 1, 2002 after the sixtieth signatory nation ratified the Rome Treaty. (Allen, 1)
11 A debate continues as to whether the events in northern Uganda in fact constitute genocide.
12 Articles 13-16 of the Rome Statute outline the three ways in which an ICC case may be initiated. These include: initiation by the OTP followed by clearance from the pre-trial chamber; a referral from the Security Council of the UN; or, as in the case at hand, a referral from a state party under Article 14 (with the stipulation in Article 17 that the state must itself be "unwilling or unable" to try the case itself [Vicencio,8]). (Allen, 19)
13 The ICC initially issued warrants five warrants: for LRA commander-in-chief Joseph Kony; his deputy, Vincent Otti; and commanders Raska Lukwiya, Dominic Ongwen, and Okot Odhiambo (Allen, 182). On August 12, 2006 Lukwiya was killed in combat with the UPDF. Vincent Otti, meanwhile, was executed by Kony for an alleged coup plot in October 2008 (Nyakairu, "Kony Kills His Deputy") and Odhiambo is believed to have been killed as a result of LRA in-fighting in April of 2008 (Sengoba). At present, only two of the men originally targeted for ICC prosecution (Kony and Ongwen) remain alive.
14 There have been virtually no attacks on Ugandan soil since this time.
Allen, T. (2006). Trial Justice: The International Criminal Court and the LRA. London: Zed Books.
Allen, T. War and Justice in Northern Uganda: an Assessment of the International Criminal Court's Intervention. Draft Report. Crisis State Research Centre, Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics. February 2005.
Anderson, E. (2005). Pawns of Politics: Children, Conflict, and Peace in Northern Uganda. Monrovia, CA: World Vision.
Boston, D. (2006, August 14). Uganda's Hidden Genocide. Science & Theology News.
Branch, A. (2005). Neither Peace nor Justice: Political Violence and the Peasantry in Northern Uganda, 1986-1998. African Studies Quarterly, 8.2. Retrieved June 12, 2007, from http://web.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v8/v8i2a1.htm
Dolan, Christopher. Director: Refugee Law Project. Lecture at Makarere University, Kampala, Uganda. 17 July 2007.
Finnström, S. (2008). Living with bad surroundings: War, history, and everyday moments in northern Uganda. Durham: Duke University Press.
International Center for Transitional Justice. (2005). Forgotten Voices: A population-based survey on attitudes about peace and justice in northern Uganda. Berkeley, CA: Pham, Phoung; Viack, Patrick; Wierda, Marieke; Stover, Eric; Giovanni, Adrian di.
Human Rights Watch. DR Congo: LRA Slaughters 620 in Christmas Massacres, http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/01/17/dr-congo-lra-slaughters-620-christmas-massacres, January 2009.
Human Rights Watch. The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, www.hrw.org/reports7/uganda , September 1997.
Human Rights Watch. Uprooted and Forgotten: Impunity and Human Rights Abuses in Northern Uganda, Vol. 17, No. 12(A), September 2005.
Nyakairu, F. (2008, March 9). Counting the gains, losses of Juba peace talks. The Monitor, www.monitor.co.ug
Nyakairu, F. (2008, April 14). Kony kills his deputy. The Monitor, www.monitor.co.ug
Okello, Stephen. Country Director: Resolve Uganda. Lecture at Makarere University, Kampala, Uganda. 5 July 2007.
Sengoba, N. (2008, April 22). How "Plan A" will sort out the LRA and govt concerns. The Monitor, www.monitor.co.ug
Sonnenberg, Stephan. Heningson Human Rights Fellow. Lecture at Brown University, Providence, RI. 7 April 2008.
Sonnenberg, S. A New Look at the ICC's Role in Northern Uganda: Why debating about 'peace versus justice' in Northern Uganda will get us nowhere fast. Unpublished.
UNICEF Uganda. (2006). The State of Youth and Youth Protection in Norther Uganda: Findings of the Survey for War Affected Youth (Phase 1. Final Report.). Annan, Jeannie; Blattman, Christopher; Horton, Roger. http://chrisblattman.com/projects/sway/
United States Agency for International Development and International Resources Group, Foundation for Environmental Security and Sustainability, and Partnership for African Environmental Sustainability. (2006). Uganda's Fading Luster: Environmental Security in the Pearl of Africa.
Villa-Vicencio, C. (2000). Why perpetrators should not always be prosecuted: Where the International Criminal Court and Truth Commissions Meet. Emory Law Journal, 49, 205-221.
(2008, December 30). Christmas Massacres "Killed 400." BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/7804470.stm
(2009, October 8). LRA fleeing to Chad: Ugandan army. Press TV, http://www.presstv.ir/detail.aspx?id=108196§ionid=351020506