Is it Possible for the UPDF to Disarm the Karamojong Warriors Peacefully?
The photo is a cover page of the report.

Is it Possible for the UPDF to Disarm the Karamojong Warriors Peacefully?

I was thirsty. The soldiers would not give me anything to drink. We were kept naked in there, even in the damp of the night. We were kept in the well from morning to morning!

By Gideon Munaabi
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First published: December 10, 2007

"The soldiers asked, 'Why are you here?' and we replied, 'We don't know why we are here.' Then they said, 'You are here because we want the gun!' If you say, 'I don't know about the gun', the soldiers get the stick and begin beating you with it, saying, 'Get the gun! Get the gun!'" - This is one of the eyewitness testimonies from the report released on September 11, 2007 by international human rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch (HRW). It accuses the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) of gross violation of human rights in Uganda's Karamoja region, where the army is currently carrying out a disarmament exercise.

Most families in Karamoja have been known to own guns, acquired to protect cattle - the pride of the Karamojongs, who inhabit northeastern Uganda. Some Karamojongs use the guns to raid neighbouring communities for extra cattle. Primarily for this reason, security has gradually deteriorated in the eastern region of Uganda. This prompted the Ugandan government to embark on a disarmament exercise, starting in 1994. For a while afterwards, this exercise was abandoned because the UPDF suffered several causalities against the Karamojongs, who were determined to keep their guns. In recent years, the army has been using maximum force to disarm them. While this method has been effective, it has come at a high cost for some locals, according to the HRW report.

The testimony mentioned above, part of the report titled 'Get the Gun: Human Rights Violations by Uganda's National Army in Law Enforcement Operations in the Karamoja Region', was allegedly given by a man who was detained in a military facility for two weeks and beaten severely while, being interrogated about the whereabouts of guns. In another testimony, two children allegedly said they were shot as they fled a cordon-and-search operation in their village. "We came out of the village with our parents. I was following my mother and father, and I got shot. My mother was shot in front of me and she fell down. Then I was shot... One bullet went through (my) fingers," one child said.

These testimonies and more, prompted Human Rights Watch to say that although it acknowledges the efforts made by the Ugandan army in reducing human rights violations, a lot still needs to be done, including stopping the UPDF combatants from subjecting civilians in Karamoja to torture, detention, rape and death, as well as destroying their property. Elizabeth Evenson, Human Rights Watch researcher and the representative of its Africa division, released the report to the media in the presence of the UPDF/Ministry of Defence spokesperson. She says that eyewitnesses continue to describe incidences in which soldiers killed children and used armoured personnel carriers to crush two homesteads. Evenson, in a statement made during the release of the report, adds that on several occasions, the soldiers severely beat and arbitrarily detained male civilians in military facilities to force them to reveal the location of their weapons.

"I was thirsty. The soldiers would not give me anything to drink. We were kept naked in there, even in the damp of the night. We were kept in the well from morning to morning," the report quotes a man who was allegedly detained in a well located in a military facility. The idea, he claimed, was that he could be forced to give the army information leading to a cache guns this way. The Government of Uganda denied the allegation, saying the report from Human Rights Watch was as usual, biased. In a September 2007 response to the Human Rights Watch, the Ministry of Defence/UPDF spokesman's office said only four of the military operations described in the report ever took place.

The army spokesperson Major Felix Kulayigye, who was present at the report release, amplified the Ugandan government's response to the HRW report by saying that that the information HRW obtained was based on a few incidents not enough to make such conclusions as the HRW did. He added that the human rights watchdog needed to give the army credit where it is due, because it (UPDF) has done a great job in Karamoja.

He further added that there might be a few isolated incidences of indiscipline by a few soldiers, before pointing out that internal guidelines were issued last year as an avenue taken by the UPDF to ensure that human rights violations are not committed. "These steps include developing a set of internal Uganda Peoples' Defence Forces (UPDF) guidelines governing the conduct of military personnel during cordon-and-search operations. We also launched four investigations into allegations of human rights violations in connection with cordon-and-search and other UPDF operations in Karamoja."

The Ugandan government, in a Ministry of Defence response to the 97-page HRW report released in Uganda's capital, Kampala, also announced that a number of soldiers have been handled by the Court Martial or other disciplinary measures taken against soldiers who abused the rights of civilians. Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga, on September 18 called a press conference at which he attacked the HRW, saying its report contradicted itself. He also said that the authors only wanted to paint a bad picture of the, UPDF which had done a great job in the northeastern part of the Uganda. "Their report is abusive and provocative. They seem to be working as someone's agents. We judge this report as abuse and provocative. Although HRW, in the report, claims to have done their research during January and February 2007, it makes extensive comments covering the period up to September 2007," said the furious minister. 

Karamoja: Uganda's Land of Warrior Nomads
Karamoja cover

Photography by David Pluth.
Stories by S. Onyang
and J. O'Kasick

About the book

Human Rights Watch acknowledges that in recent months, cordon-and-search operations have been markedly less violent and accompanied by far fewer allegations of abuse compared to the earlier months but says that contrary to statements by the UPDF leadership, there are no details of punishments received by any military personnel for the offences UPDF admitted. "In the three explicit disarmament-related cases of which Human Rights Watch is aware, soldiers were disciplined for petty theft. Although the Ugandan government has taken steps in the right direction recently, more must be done to provide accountability for past violations and to prevent future abuses by UPDF personnel."

Human Rights Watch also says that despite the introduction of guidelines (of which each platoon commander has a copy) as stated by the UPDF, it has documented evidence to show that human rights abuse in cordon-and-search operations in late 2006 and early 2007 (after the introduction and even revision of the guidelines) continued. "The UPDF personnel were allegedly responsible for unlawful killings, torture, and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of the civilian population during cordon-and-search operations, theft and destruction of property."

HRW adds that although the guidelines do not appear to provide for the detention of male civilians following cordon-and-search operations, this continues to happen. The group says that according to their research, these detentions are commonplace. "In cases documented by Human Rights Watch, again, including operations postdating the introduction and revision of guidelines, these detentions were allegedly accompanied by torture and other cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment."

Referring to the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights' report that also reported human rights violations by the UPDF between April and August 2007, Human Rights Watch says that although the Ugandan government has every right to get guns out of the hands of ordinary citizens, its soldiers must still obey the law while undertaking such exercises. In its recommendations, Human Rights Watch advises that in addition to improved efforts by the Ugandan government and army to be accountable, they must provide a more systematic response to human rights violations. "The Government of Uganda must end human rights violations committed by soldiers of the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces (UPDF) and its auxiliary forces with impunity during cordon-and-search operations. It must promptly, impartially and transparently investigate and discipline or prosecute appropriately, all allegations of human rights violations including unlawful killings, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and other cruel inhumane, or degrading treatment, and destruction of property."

HRW also wants the Ugandan government to compensate victims of unlawful killings, torture, ill-treatment, arbitrary detention, and looting by the government forces and to set up an independent commission to study the Karamoja situation. "The Government of Uganda should convene a commission of independent experts on pastoralist livelihood, arms control, and human rights to examine the relationship between livelihoods, conflict resolution, and arms proliferation in Karamoja. 

"This commission, drawing on the existing Karamoja Integrated Disarmament and Development Program (KIDDP) draft, and guided by a prioritisation of human rights, should recommend revisions to KIDDP and coordinate with existing government policies including the National Action Plan on Arms Management and Disarmament. Human Rights Watch advises that the commission should seek the input of relevant government ministries, the Uganda Human Rights Commission, the National Focal Point on Small Arms and Light Weapons (NFP), and local elected officials, community leaders, and civil society representatives from Karamoja."

HRW also wants the international community to get more involved in the affairs of Karamoja. It wants the UN team in Uganda to closely monitor military activity in the Karamoja region. "The UN team should continue, through the leadership of the UN officer at the High Commission for Human Rights, to closely monitor the Ugandan government's compliance with national and international human rights standards in its policies as addressed to the Karamoja region, including disarmament."

The HRW report also points out the need for the activities of the appropriate UN agencies to increase in Karamoja to bolster human rights, humanitarian assistance and civilian protection. It also advises donor countries to call on the Ugandan government to expedite reforms to cordon-and-search operations' procedures as a way of ensuring the legality of these (disarmament) operations, and to investigate and prosecute human rights violations by its forces. Whether it is possible for the disarmament exercise to become peaceful with the Karamajong warriors unwilling to surrender or reveal the sources of their guns to the army as part of the voluntary disarmament that the Ugandan government proposed and enacted remains to be seen.

By Gideon Munaabi
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First published: December 10, 2007
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Gideon Munaabi is a journalist and public relations practitioner with Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd. He has been and continues writing widely for different publication locally and internationally. He is a founding member of Ultimate Media Consult (U) Ltd and is currently the chairman of the organisation.