The detention of Major General Caesar Acellam, apparently the fourth-senior commander in the Lord's Resistance Army, is major news. It's prompted Radkhika Coomaraswamy, the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict, to urge a prosecution. This is understandable: the LRA is a pretty terrible organization, and Acellam is no doubt responsible for some pretty terrible crimes, despite the fact that he is apparently not among those indicted by the ICC. However, the government of Uganda has also announced that Acellam is eligible to apply for amnesty. This would make him the most senior LRA official to be granted amnesty.
How would amnesty affect the ending of the conflict, the capture of Joseph Kony, and the dismantling of the LRA? Coomaraswamy argues that "The arrest and subsequent prosecution of Acellam would send a strong message to the LRA leadership that they will be held accountable for their actions." This is probably true. But to what end? Is it likely, for example, to induce them to commit fewer crimes in the meantime, for example? I find this unlikely, if only because if they do face prosecution for the crimes they've already committed--28 counts of crimes against humanity and 54 counts of war crimes between the four senior LRA commanders under ICC indictment--they face little hope of lighter sentences down the road. Interestingly, the one group that I could see this signal affecting in the way that Coomaraswamy intends is precisely not the senior LRA leadership, but lower-ranking officers not presently under indictment.
Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga has signalled that whether Acellam was captured or gave himself up will be an important consideration. As they should. Acellam was apparently taken with his wife, daughter and a helper, a rifle and eight rounds, separated from the rest of the LRA. He may have split from the remainder over a dispute. In addition, he has long been on a list of potential defectors after falling out with Kony over making peace with Kampala--though Ugandan officials apparently deny that they'd been in talks with Acellam over his defection. But even in the scenario in which he had not intended to defect, but merely to hide, means that prosecuting Acellam sends a signal to remaining senior LRA personnel that they need to stay with the group, which has for so long successfully evaded capture. Deserting the LRA becomes less of an option.
Here, we might be seeing an instance of a more general problem: the inability to make a credible commitment may keep wars running longer than they need to. It's not obvious that amnesty is an automatic solution to this difficulty. It's associated with greater postwar instability and a higher likelihood of resumption of civil war, for example; exile seems to work more effectively.
The very difficulty of tracking down Kony suggests another reason to consider amnesty: plea bargaining. Malcolm Webb argues that intelligence from defectors and captured LRA members has proven more effective than electronic surveillance or other high-tech methods, and that Acellam could prove to be an invaluable resource--if he talks. Amnesty may give him reason to do so.
Ultimately, then, Defense Minister Kiyonga's stated approach--"Let's wait. We assess each (amnesty) case on its merit. We are waiting for him to arrive and then we will take a cool-headed decision"--seems about right to me. Too much is unknown, and I find Coomaraswamy to be rushing to a recommendation.
One way or another, I don't think that my arguments, or Coomaraswamy's, or those of any other commentator deserve more consideration than the opinions of the people of northern Uganda. There are enough outside agendas at work in the LRA conflict that it's problematic for anyone to claim the final word. But there is a pretty strong case, here, for keeping amnesty on the table.