While the Obama administration fights for the life of the Iran nuclear deal, another bipartisan, bicameral effort in United States foreign policy is under way. Then-Senator John Kerry found many allies in 2012 when he and Senator John Boozman (R-AR) introduced the “Rewards for Justice” expansion bill, focused on bringing to justice Joseph Kony and other leaders of the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Last week, legislation was introduced in the House and Senate with members of both parties – Senators Boozman and Dick Durbin (D-IL), together with Representatives Jim McGovern (D-MA) and Joe Pitts (R-PA) – underscoring their support for peace efforts in central Africa. Although the LRA no longer garners the attention it did during the international Kony 2012 campaign, Congress must remain committed to a peaceful end to the brutal rebel group.
The LRA spun off of other relatively popular rebellions in northern Uganda in 1986 and allegedly sought to topple the government of Uganda and establish rule by the Ten Commandments. However, it quickly lost the faith of the communities for which it claimed to fight when it began looting, mutilating, raping, killing, and enslaving children as soldiers or sex slaves. At the height of the conflict, over two million Ugandans were displaced; many forced to live in dangerous government-run displacement camps. Despite civilian-initiated peace talks in 2006, the LRA continues to wreak havoc on defenseless rural communities in the surrounding countries of South Sudan, Central African Republic (CAR), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo).
President Obama deployed approximately 100 U.S. Special Forces Advisors to the region in 2011 as part of the implementation of the widely supported LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. They have provided training, technology, and mobility to the African Union counter-LRA mission and complimented non-military programs, helping decrease LRA killings by 90 percent and boost peaceful defections from the rebel group. According to recent research by The Resolve LRA Crisis Initiative and the Enough Project, There are now fewer than 200 fighters left in the LRA, but local leaders and regional experts insist that the LRA has historically ramped up abductions and regained strength whenever international attention wavers. Further, the LRA contributes to ongoing instability and widespread atrocities in South Sudan, CAR, and Congo. With several of its top rebel commanders removed from the battlefield in 2014 and 2015 and consistent reports of Kony’s ailing health, now is the time for the United States, African Union, and other international actors to complete the counter-LRA mission.
Both the Senate and House bills introduced last week seek United States commitment to a peaceful resolution to 29 years of terror by the LRA. They condemn LRA violence against civilians and call on President Obama, the Defense Department, the State Department, and other international actors to fulfill their responsibilities in the counter-LRA operation. The legislation is key as both State Department officials and peace advocates describe waning government support for the mission that, if left uncompleted, would likely end regional military and civilian operations. The House Committee on Armed Services recently expressed the possible “transition or termination” of the counter-LRA operation, pending Defense Secretary feedback on a “post-Kony” mission. This is a key question, as the end of the LRA must not mark an end to the mission – USAID and the State Department will have important roles to play in the successful rehabilitation of former combatants and their communities to ensure a permanent end to the rebellion. The proposed legislation would require President Obama to develop a multilateral strategy with regional and international partners to ensure “sustainable recovery and security” without increasing American investment of resources.
The brutality of the LRA earned five of its highest ranking commanders the inaugural indictments by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2005 for crimes including the forced enlistment of children, rape, and crimes against humanity. The United States Congress and grassroots activists then developed successful interventions for peace in 2010 and 2012. This rare example of successful joint military, diplomatic, and citizen efforts will go to waste if the counter-LRA mission is scrapped now. The communities of central Africa are bearing the brunt of LRA atrocities yet are working tirelessly for long-term peace and justice. The United States must play its role and support regional stability and civilian security. Congress must pass this legislation.