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The state should embrace memorialization as a greater part of Transitional Justice in Uganda

By Denis Barnabas Otim



For more than five decades (from 1962 – 2021), Uganda as a country has continued to witness a number of human rights violations and crimes against the citizenry. However, efforts to deal with past and current crimes could be found in the 2019 National Transitional Justice Policy. A policy which is yet to come into law and to be implemented. The Uganda National Transitional Justice Policy (NTJP) is a framework, which if well implemented, can contribute towards responding to justice, accountability and reconciliation needs of Uganda as a country that has experienced close to 120 conflicts (Compendium of Conflicts, 2014) mostly fought internally, including the Lord’s Resistance Army conflict.


Fourteen (14) years ago, the Government of Uganda signed the Juba Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation (AAR) with the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). In this agreement, the government committed to establishing concrete measures that would promote accountability, reconciliation, and justice for victims of serious human rights violations stemming from two decades of armed LRA conflict. To date, the only complete process or means to enhancing accountability, reconciliation and justice in Uganda lies with the National Transitional Justice Policy. Within its framework, the NTJP in its own right does not speak strongly to memorialization as a strong community transitional justice mechanisms.


In practice, transitional justice paradigms rely on the conviction that by dealing with past wrongs and atrocities especially at a broader national level, a better future and that which is free of violence can be secured. The practice also warns that without a proper engagement with the past and the institutionalization of transitional justice practices of remembrances, aggrieved and hurt societies may carry and prolong hate which may result into repeat of abuses. A number of transitional justice practitioners in Uganda allude to the 2016 mass killings in Kasese (where it was alleged that a total of 153 died during the clash including children) and the November, 18, 2020 electoral related killings in Uganda to the absence of strong state facilitated mechanisms to avoid/prevent violence as required within a TJ paradigm. For instance, five years after the mass abuse and crimes committed in Kasese, there has been neither recognition of what happened as a violation nor accountability for what happened as well as attempts to reconcile.


The continued negligence to institute a functional transitional justice approach and more particularly in terms of memorialization in Uganda confirms a lack of commitment and contextualization that serious violations and abuses occurred in Uganda. The relevance of transitional justice has effectively been relegated. The provision of space by the state for memorialization is one of the steps towards which a community led TJ discourse could be adopted to frame discussions for dialogue about the past and how to shape the future. Of late, the commemoration of the Arch Bishop Janani Loum day on the 16thFebruary of each year has helped many to recall and find peace in the regime. A similar act of discourse could be extended in commemoration of the various massacres and victims of human rights abuses and violations in Uganda.


Memorialization per se aims at commemorating and enhancing the understanding of collective past. However, in the case of Uganda this has remained limited to monuments, selective holding of memorial prayers/services for victims/survivors of violence and human rights abuses and documenting of oral history – a practice which is mostly being facilitated by Civil Society Organisations led by transitional justice actors such as the Refugee Law Project and the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre. The reality is that holding and convening memorial prayers creates a number of opportunities for victims and survivors. Engagement with individuals and victim groups in WestNile (Ombaci and Odramachaku victims/survivors association groups), in Acholi (Barlonyo, Lukodi, and others), Lango and Teso sub-region survivors attests to the memorials contributing towards healing, mini-truth telling, and spaces for public education for engaging other generations towards reconciliation.


The other more likely disassociated good is the current community understanding and acknowledgement that memorialization can be a greater part of reparation. To some communities affected by conflicts in Uganda this can be done through building monuments as part of symbolic reparations which focuses on victims and citizens. Besides, the state must also recognize and appreciate that reparation in its principality is an individual right which is also embedded in Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. However, for the case of Uganda and given the vicious circles of violations, individual reparation may rather be very difficult and expensive. Thus, prioritizing group and community reparations such as building hospitals for medical rehabilitation for victims/survivors armed violence/abuses may guarantee the realization of other important rights. Though this may also be seen as a means of the state carrying out development responsibilities.


Convening and supporting memorials may also result into mutual supportive action of belonging together by specific communities or groups. This has also proved to have created space for social actions to take place resulting into the establishment of a number of support groups and structures where victims and survivors have been able to physically, socially, economically and emotionally understand and support each other. Critical in memorialization is the assurance and early warning of non-recurrence of atrocities and future conflict prevention. Participants who attend memorials have always and unanimously warned of having a repeat of such violent conflict experiences and human rights abuses. They have been strong advocates offering insights to understand the root causes of the pain/violence and the need to prevent it from happening.


Important to note is that, the reason behind memorialization is to keep memory/ies of past abuses/violations alive, in order to prevent recurrence of similar violence. A step forward for Uganda is to first appreciate the context in which violations are being committed, document the violations, acknowledge that it imperative to address the past wrongs and commit to ending impunity through the various TJ approaches. However, a critical focus, on an easily accessible, sustainable community led justice approach in memorialization is key in that these are context specific and directly responds to specific community transitional needs and has a high potential of being achieved at a lower cost.


Denis Barnabas Otim is a Transitional Justice Practitioner working as a Programme Officer – Human Rights with Gulu Women’s Economic Development and Globalisation (GWED-G). He can be reached at otim.barnabas@gmail.com & otimpaokech@yahoo.co.uk.