To End a Nightmare

In Central Africa -- not uniquely, but disturbingly -- the rules of sanity are occasionally suspended.

In 1986, a priestess named Alice Lakwena, combining elements of animism with a severe reading of the Ten Commandments, led a revolt of northern Ugandans against the newly installed central government of Yoweri Museveni. Her soldiers covered themselves with vegetable oil in the belief it would protect them against bullets. The strategy wasn't effective. After the slaughter, a relative of Lakwena's named Joseph Kony took up the cause and launched a guerrilla war that eventually brought fear to three countries, took tens of thousands of lives and forced nearly 2 million people into refugee camps.

Kony's Lord's Resistance Army specialized in intimidating the people it was supposed to be liberating, cutting off ears and lips to instill fear, and abducting about 38,000 children to become soldiers and sex slaves. A recent article from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting recounts the story of one girl kidnapped at age 14: "I was dragged by my arms and put with other children who had been captured. They only wanted children." A victim named Christine was taken along with her father, who was beaten severely by the guards -- and his daughter was forced to finish his murder.

But sometimes, unexpectedly, sanity makes a comeback. In the past few years, support for the LRA has evaporated in northern Uganda as local leaders have turned increasingly to political solutions to address their grievances. Military pressure has pushed the LRA out of northern Uganda and southern Sudan and into lawless regions of northeastern Congo. An African-led peace process has produced a cease-fire. Hundreds of thousands have returned from the camps to begin rebuilding their homes and lives.

Most amazingly, Kony and his key commanders have begun to talk about demobilization and surrender. "They looked around them," says one senior State Department official, "and found everyone had moved beyond them." And this sets up one of the most dramatic legal questions since the Nuremberg trials: What does justice mean for these brutal men who "only wanted children"?

This week, the International Criminal Court, which has indicted Kony on 33 charges of murder, kidnapping, rape, mutilation and mass killing, gave an answer. The ICC chief prosecutor said: "Those warrants must be executed. There is no excuse." As a relatively new institution, the ICC feels its credibility is at stake -- along with the credibility of future ICC prosecutions in Darfur.

But according to diplomats close to the peace negotiations, these indictments are now a main obstacle to a final agreement. LRA leaders may surrender to imprisonment in Uganda; they refuse to accept a trial and punishment by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The end of the Lord's Resistance Army now depends on three commitments from the international community:

First, the ICC needs to show some flexibility. It should insist that the Ugandan legal process meet high international standards when prosecuting LRA leaders -- but it should not insist on conducting the trials itself. By statute, the ICC is supposed to intervene only when national courts are "unable" or "unwilling" to prosecute. The Ugandans are willing. But Human Rights Watch has set out some reasonable expectations for the Ugandan courts: "credible, independent and impartial investigation and prosecution; rigorous adherence in principle and practice to international fair trial standards; and penalties that are appropriate and reflect the gravity of the crimes." This means imprisonment for LRA leaders, not merely house arrest. If these expectations aren't met, the ICC should reserve the right to move forward itself.

Second, the United States will need to support reconstruction efforts in northern Uganda -- a key to genuine reconciliation. The needs and suffering of northern Ugandans have too often been ignored. This week, President Museveni launched a long-awaited reconciliation and development plan for the region. The United States has promised to support it. But currently, the Bush administration has not included any funds for this project in either the budget or the upcoming supplemental appropriation. By this retreat from responsibility, the administration is undermining a fragile peace in Central Africa.

Third, nations in the region and United Nations peacekeepers need to be ready to launch a military campaign in the Congo against the LRA if its leaders prove recalcitrant. The Congolese military is moving two battalions into the area for possible operations in January. The United States has signaled its endorsement of this operation, which makes sincere and urgent negotiation by LRA leaders more likely.

Central Africa has experienced a two-decade nightmare. With a concerted effort in the next few months, that nightmare may finally end.

Michael Gerson