Dictionary of Gross Human Rights Violations

Uganda, Gross Human Rights Violations in

By - Kjell Follingstad Anderson

In the past thirty years, Uganda has suffered several periods of gross human rights violations. Foremost among these have been the crimes against humanity committed by the Idi Amin regime (1971-1979), the Obote II and Okello regimes (1980-1986), and the more recent war crimes and crimes against humanity of the rebellion in northern Uganda (committed both by rebel groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army or LRA, and the government).

Uganda became independent from Britain in 1962 and in 1966 Prime Minister Milton Obote threw out the constitution and assumed direct and complete control of the country.  In 1971 Obote was overthrown in a military coup led by Armed Forces Commander Idi Amin Dada.  Amin was one of the first two "black" Africans to become commissioned officers in Uganda and he had quickly risen through the ranks of the military.  At first Amin’s regime seemed to be quite moderate as he abolished the secret police (the General Service Unit) and freed many political prisoners. Amin also promised to hold free elections soon but the tenor of his regime soon changed.  He began to use the military police, State Research Bureau (an intelligence body under his personal control), and the Public Safety Unit to brutally repress his opponents.  Through the years Amin became increasingly paranoid and progressively broadened his definition of his "enemies."  Amin’s brutality also had an ethnic dimension as he oppressed certain ethnic groups such as the Acholi and Lango, while favouring other groups such as the "Nubians" from the West Nile region straddling the Sudanese border.

In 1979 Amin invaded Tanzania and it was the Tanzanian army that drove him from power later the same year. In all Amin murdered at least one hundred thousand people and probably as many as 300 000 (according to the International Commission of Jurists).  Many others suffered human rights abuses such as torture, mutilation, and rape.  For more information see "Amin, Idi."

Unfortunately, gross human rights violations continued in the aftermath of Amin’s regime.  In the 1980 elections Milton Obote was returned to power and in an attempt to counter an insurgency led by Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Army (NRA) widespread and indiscriminate human rights abuses were committed.  In 1985 Obote was overthrown in an army coup led by Lt. Gen. Bazilio Olara-Okello but the brutal counter-insurgency campaign against the NRA continued until Museveni’s forces seized Kampala a year later.

In the Museveni era gross human rights violations have been centred in the Acholiland region in the north (Gulu, Pader, and Kitgum districts).  Groups such as the Uganda People’s Democratic Army, the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have been fighting the government.  The roots of the LRA and other rebel groups in Acholiland lie in the ethnic politics in Uganda whereby the overthrown Okello regime was associated with the Acholis while the Museveni regime found most of its support in the south and south-west of the country.1 

The government of Sudan also has prolonged the war through its support of the LRA and other rebel groups.  The LRA-Sudan alliance stems from the fact that the main ethnic groups in the LRA are in conflict with Sudanese ethnic groups just across the border such as the Dinka – these groups are the main supporters of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army rebel group.  The LRA (led by Joseph Kony) and the Holy Spirit Mobile Forces (led by Alice Lakwena) were both infused with a unique brand of spiritualism characterised by the use of spirit mediums (both Kony and Lakwena claimed to be possessed by several spirits, some malevolent), as well as elements of Islam and Christianity.

The government has forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of people but the LRA has committed particularly gruesome abuses such as: the massive abduction of children (for use as child soldiers or sexual slaves), deliberate killing of civilians, torture, rape, mutilation (including the systematic cutting off of limbs, lips noses, and ears as ‘punishments’), and forced killing of relatives.2  Hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and 1.5 million displaced.3 These offences constitute crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Somewhat contradictorily the government has pursed a peace process with the LRA and issued amnesties to those willing to demobilise and disarm, while it has referred the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution of those the most responsible.  The ICC has stated that the amnesties are a matter of for the "national judicial system" (i.e. therefore they do not apply to an international court responsible for international crimes).4  After an investigation, the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) at the ICC has issued arrest warrants in May 2005 (made public in October) for five LRA commanders: Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti (LRA deputy commander-in-chief), Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen (who has apparently since been killed in fighting).  The cases have yet to be heard in court and none of the suspects are in custody.

It also appears that the Museveni government is utilising the widespread and systematic detention without trial and torture of opponents to the regime and declared "security risks."  These people are often kidnapped by security agents (for example, agents of the Chieftaincy for Military Intelligence, the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force, or other organisations), taken to secret prisons or military barracks, and systematically tortured.  They are never charged with any crime and never given the chance for legal representation.  This policy is in contravention with basic international human rights standards and constitutes the international crime of torture, and likely, the crimes against humanity of torture and (arbitrary) detention.  For a case study please see "Acleo Kalinga".


Tim Allen, Trial Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Lord’s Resistance Army, London: Zed Books, 2006, p. 28.

Allen 47.

Allen 53.

Allen 199.