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Uganda: glaring humanitarian needs far from media attention

15-03-2006 Interview

Pierre-André Conod, head of delegation in Uganda for two years, has just completed his mission in that country torn by an internal conflict that has attracted little media attention despite the magnitude of the humanitarian needs. In this interview he gives us his thoughts on the issue.

 Is the humanitarian situation in Uganda deteriorating?  

I would be more inclined to say that the humanitarian situation in the country, which is already bad, is stagnating. It was in 2003 in particular that the situation deteriorated considerably when the number of displaced persons rose from 400,000 to 1.5 million. These people live in overcrowded camps in various districts in the north of the country, and they have serious problems regarding access to the food, drinking water and healthcare to which they are entitled. This adds to the tremendous promiscuity that is rife in the camps and the destruction of their traditions.

There are two essential factors underlying this situation. On the one hand, the population is subjected to serious abuses committed by the parties to the conflict. And on the other hand, domestic violence is a major problem. Displaced persons become disoriented when they live in an overpopulated environment that is foreign to them. Alcoholism prevails and there are numerous acts of violence amongst members of the same family.

 What are the challenges facing the ICRC?  

The main challenge, which is ever-present, essentially concerns security. We resumed operations in Uganda two years ago after a 3-year absence. Basically, if you want to carry out effective humanitarian action in the field you must be perceived favourably and accepted by the parties to the conflict, i.e. the Lord Resistance Army (LRA), the UPDF (Uganda Police and Defence Forces), and the authorities of the country in general. W e were welcomed by the government authorities and it was relatively easy to redeploy staff and equipment in the north of the country.

 
"... unless we have clear guarantees, the safety of our teams will remain very uncertain."
 
 

But the rebels, who have been active for 19 years, have no political branch per se, and it is thus extremely difficult to hold a constructive dialogue in order to actually find out how the LRA perceives the ICRC. We never succeeded in obtaining direct tangible guarantees from that group with regard to the security which must surround our operations. However, through talks with defectors or persons arrested in the context of the conflict we understood that the Red Cross was viewed relatively favourably by the rebels, that is to say, both the ICRC and the Ugandan Red Cross, which we involve closely in our activities.

But the ambushes laid at the end of 2005 against six humanitarian organizations which were travelling without armed escort, as the ICRC did, marred our idea of how the LRA perceived the ICRC. Are these attacks, which are presumed to have been the work of the LRA, a sign that that armed movement’s attitude to the ICRC is changing? Whatever the case, we decided at all events to cut down on our activities in the north while stepping up our efforts to obtain more explicit safety guarantees. We are gradually redeploying in zones which we consider to be safe since we know the area relatively well. Our delegation employees are thus at home in that region and provide us with valuable information on where we can travel. But, I repeat, unless we have clear guarantees, the safety of our teams will remain very uncertain.

    

 Does the ICRC have access to the detainees who fall within its mandate?  

 
"We now have access to both civilian and military places of detention and our operating methods are respected..."
 
 

When the ICRC resumed its activities to assist displaced persons in 2004, the organization also renewed the dialogue with both the civilian and the military authorities in order to regain access to persons under arrest or persons who have been tried for treason or libel against the government or by virtue of the antiterrorist legislation in force. We now have access to both civilian and military places of detention and our operating methods are respected, so that we know exactly what the detention conditions are at these various sites. The quality of the dialogue with the authorities is very satisfactory: we can talk openly with them whenever we have recommendations to make with a view to improving detention conditions.

Since the authorities do not notify us spontaneously about the arrests they are carrying out, we have to express interest in visiting the persons concerned; we do obtain access, and I am very satisfied with this. Ideally, if the authorities notified us about every new arrest, collaboration with them would be even better.

    

 Is international humanitarian law sufficiently well known in Uganda?  

No, it isn’t, but there are encouraging signs. Another important issue for the ICRC is the dissemination of international humanitarian law and of human rights principles to bearers of weapons, whether they be military or members of the police force who are called upon to take part in operations to maintain order. We signed a 3-year agreement in this contex t with the Ministry of Defence with a view to including the fundamental principles of IHL in military training so that the troops are conversant with them and, hopefully, abide by the rules.

Likewise, we also signed an agreement with the police authorities with a view to pursuing similar efforts with the police forces, whose members would need to be given appropriate training in the human rights field. This is the pre-election period, and there were already outbreaks of violence in the city of Kampala in November 2005. We hope that all will go well and that the election results will be accepted by all parties, but we remain vigilant, of course, and the dissemination of fundamental IHL and human rights rules remains a priority for the ICRC.

    

 How does the ICRC explain the interruption of its activities in Uganda from 2001 to 2004 ?  

 
"A dialogue was opened with the authorities concerned with a view to clarifying why humanitarian workers had been killed in the context of a mission of which all of the opposing parties had been duly notified..."
 
 

The interruption of the ICRC presence in Uganda was quite simply related to a tragic security incident. It must be borne in mind that six ICRC staff members were assassinated in Ituri District in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on 26 April 2001 at a time when there were several opposing parties in the field, in particular the Ugandan armed forces. Following these killings, the ICRC decided to withdraw from Ituri and to suspend its operations provisionally in the northern region of the DRC and in Uganda with the exception of Kampala District. A dialogue was opened with the authorities concerned with a view to clarify ing why humanitarian workers had been killed in the context of a mission of which all of the opposing parties had been duly notified, and these clarification efforts are still continuing. In March 2005, the ICRC Delegate General for Africa held a meeting with the Ugandan authorities on the subject, and the ICRC President followed suit in June of the same year, approaching President Museveni directly. All we can say at this stage is that the dialogue is still open.

I wish to make it clear that this issue has nothing at all to do with the resumption of our activities in Uganda. These are two very different problems, and our return to the north of the country in particular was justified by the major deterioration in the humanitarian situation which both the international community and we ourselves observed in 2003.

    

 Why is the internal conflict in Uganda given so little media coverage?  

The reasons for this lack of interest are connected with politics. The conflict was completely forgotten until 2002; nobody talked about it since it was confined to the north of the country. But when Uganda was authorized by the Sudanese government to carry out military operations in southern Sudan in order to pursue the rebels causing a significant increase in the number of displaced persons on the territory of Uganda itself international awareness of the conflict began to grow.

Although Uganda is a little more in the news today, the interest shown is out of all proportion to the magnitude of the humanitarian needs of the populations affected by this internal conflict.

    

 Is the humanitarian response in the north of the country appropriate?  

 
"Greater mobilization efforts on the part of the Ugandan State are thus expected in order to assist the displaced persons on its territory..."
 
 

I don't think it is, basically because of the problems of security and thus of access for organizations to the victims of the conflict. The fact that the ICRC and several other organizations have opted not to resort to armed escorts remains a guarantee of neutrality.

Greater mobilization efforts on the part of the Ugandan State are thus expected in order to assist the displaced persons on its territory; this would reduce that population's dependence on external aid.

At all events, any aid that reaches these displaced persons is by definition inadequate: living in camps indefinitely is extremely harmful to the traditional way of life of any people, and no organization will ever be able to erase the damage that has been done.