For the past 20 years, northern Uganda's killing fields have been rocked and ruined by a vicious conflict between government forces and a rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). The result is one of the most excessive cases of violations of the rights of innocent people.
Those killing fields are now a testing ground for the newest international tool to control the crimes of tyrants and warlords.
Two years after its inauguration, the International Criminal Court has just issued its first indictments, citing five leaders of the LRA for crimes against humanity. This is the opening gambit by the court to use its power to bring to account violators of the Rome Statute, the international covenant that cites crimes against humanity, including use of rape and exploitation of child soldiers, as indictable offences. If it works, it will install a very potent instrument of justice to help implement the recently passed protocol on "responsibility to protect" at the United Nations.
Various efforts to find a peaceful solution in Uganda have so far been frustrated. Attempts to work out an amnesty for the LRA's warrior children had some initial success but were overtaken by a major military offensive that was part of the government's counterterrorism agenda. A local peace committee has valiantly tried to gain the attention of the international community to ask for diplomatic intervention and protection for the war-affected children - but, so far, to little avail.
The anxiety of parents and local church groups are understandable. The LRA's warrior children - some 30,000 - are the same ones who were abducted from their villages during the past 20 years, and the same ones killed during military encounters with the government. The parents and local leaders have seen the failure of the military method to stop the killing, and they have placed their hope in finding ways to get rebel leaders to voluntarily leave the bush and agree to local tribal forms of justice.
These concerns by the local populace - eloquently expressed by Betty Bigombe, a former member of the Museveni government who has worked valiantly to persuade the LRA to give up their arms peacefully -present the court with a serious dilemma. Chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, mindful of the need to work out a balance of the universal laws of the Rome Statute with the local peace efforts and traditional justice systems, has held off taking direct action in the past few months. But he is also aware of the old adage that justice delayed is justice denied.
There are enough examples to show that, even if peace comes and the perpetrators are not brought to justice, the peace will not prevail. One only has to look at the continued interference of exiled Liberian dictator Charles Taylor in the politics of his country as the Liberians try to build a fragile democracy.
The Canadian United Nations mission led by Ambassador Allan Rock and several large U.S, foundations, supported by Canadian-based think-tanks and NGOs, are working to see how these positions can be reconciled. The key diplomatic need is to have an international effort designed to give protection to the children incorporated into an international effort that would enhance the role of the ICC - combining peace and justice.
A country such as Canada could emerge as a champion in melding the approaches and raising the money to offer meaningful assistance for the returning children to be rehabilitated according to the customs and culture of the northern Ugandan tribes and peace committees. This is the promise we made when we took on the advocacy of the "responsibility to protect" principle at the UN leaders summit.
So now is the chance to put our political clout behind our principle. The imperative is to: (1) take on the task of supporting the ICC indictments with resources; (2) work with the ICC to ensure full compatibility and comfort between its judicial approach and the ongoing peace efforts, and (3) mobilize an international effort to ensure full integration of the returning child warriors to a useful life in their communities. In other words, we should not run off and abandon the warrior children as we did in Sierra Leone.
For the skeptics who say it can't be done, that peace and justice can't mix, recall how we came to make peace in Kosovo. Holed up in a drafty German castle, the Group of Eight foreign ministers were trying to find grounds for a peace agreement with Slobodan Milosevic. We were not making progress. Then we received word that Louise Arbour, the chief UN war crimes prosecutor for the Balkans, had tabled indictments against six Serbian leaders. Within 24 hours, we had a deal. Within 48 hours, the conflict was over.
A call for justice and the use of indictments to isolate leaders can be a very useful tool in gaining the peace. The ICC gives us a chance to apply this on a global level. It is up to Canada to offer its support and leadership.
Lloyd Axworthy, a former foreign affairs minister, is president of the University of Winnipeg. Erin Baines is director of the Peace and Conflict Program at the University of British Columbia's Liu Institute for Global Issues.