The Paradox of Peace and Justice: Mato Oput* versus the ICC in Uganda

Justice is complicated; it operates on many levels. In the home, parents often create their own system to punish inappropriate behavior and restore fairness and peace to the household. Countries establish judicial systems where judges, juries, and teams of lawyers work within a legal framework. And, since 2002, criminal justice on an international level exists: the ICC was founded to ensure that justice could be achieved in cases where other legal systems were non-existent or not holding perpetrators accountable for the most heinous of crimes. But the system is still being worked out, and in the meantime the question of how to balance national and international justice mechanisms has become increasingly complicated.

The situation in Northern Uganda highlights this complexity. In 2003, the government of Uganda felt unable to prosecute LRA leaders who allegedly organized the abduction of children, the destruction of villages, and other crimes. So the government asked the ICC to investigate. Two years later, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC issued arrest warrants for Lord’s Resistance Army rebel leaders Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Dominic Ongwen, Okot Odhiambo, and Raska Lukwiya on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ever since the indictments were issued, the LRA and, increasingly, the government of Uganda, have demanded that the Court drop the charges. They argue that the indictments threaten a potential peace process that would end over 20 years of violence in the region—a process that the LRA leaders refuse to participate in until the arrest warrants have been revoked.

In the article linked below, Joseph Yav Katshung, Coordinator of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) Chair for Human Rights, Peace, Conflict Resolution and Good Governance, addresses the “paradox between peace and justice” that has emerged in discussions about the relationship between the ICC and traditional forms of justice, namely the Acholi tradition of mato oput*. While he sees the merit of using a traditional system he also points out the potential danger of using these mechanisms as an excuse to avoid moral and legal accountability.

Continue to the next Reading: Mato Oput versus the International Criminal Court in Uganda and related Connections questions.

*Meaning “to drink the bitter root,” mato oput is a traditional Acholi justice practice used to restore peace to the community after an accidental or intentional murder. After the perpetrator accepts responsibility for the crime and the victim’s family has granted forgiveness, a special ceremony is performed. The perpetrator and the victim’s family drink mato oput––a bitter drink––out of a shared bowl. This act symbolizes the reconciliation of the families as they bury the bitterness of the past. For more information, the Justice and Reconciliation Project provides a detailed description of mato oput and posts images of mato oput ceremonies..

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