Communities and Reparations

Communities and Reparations in Northern Uganda: An Analysis of Local and International Perceptions



On the occasion of the Uganda National Transitional Justice (TJ) Policy (2019) and the current preparation of the Transitional Justice Bill, this collaborative research project seeks to understand reparations from different perspectives: The concept and envisaged provisions for reparations in the TJ Policy; the experiences and expectations following from the trials of Thomas Kwoyelo at the International Crimes Division of the High Court and Dominic Ongwen at the International Criminal Court; and the expectations and understandings of ordinary people affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict in northern Uganda. It uses contrasting voices and conceptualisations to understand the phenomenon of reparations in the context of contemporary Uganda.

This concept note first defines and discusses reparations as a concept in transitional justice. Thereafter it outlines the project rationale and research questions, situating the project in the context of northern Uganda’s post-conflict situation. Then it briefly discusses three perspectives on the meaning and significance of reparations in relation to the conflict in northern Uganda; these perspectives will be further investigated through the proposed research collaboration. Lastly, it outlines the method for this research.


In the field of transitional justice (TJ) (see Sharp 2018; Teitel 2000; 2003; Turner 2017), the concept of reparations denotes material and/or symbolic compensation for suffering (Balasco 2017; García-Godos 2008). This is often seen to include, in combination and as appropriate, restitution, compensation for harm, and rehabilitation in mind, body and status. Uganda’s National TJ Policy defines reparations as material or symbolic, individual or collective ‘redress given to victims of gross or serious human rights violations/ abuses’ (Government of Uganda 2019, viii). Reparations are a victim-centred TJ mechanism, as it focuses, in principle, on victims’ situations and seeks to repair rights violated and harms suffered. The literature stresses that it is not a ‘hand out’ (Magarrellan.d., 2), but should rather be understood as a symbolic and material recognition of the victims’ status as rights holders. In its symbolic aspects, reparations provide official, public acknowledgement that harm was done and was morally wrong. It also signifies that the state has responsibility for failing to prevent the harm – or even for causing it. Addressing past wrong and enabling a process of transition, reparations are both backward and forward-looking.

Providing reparations in the aftermath of massive human rights violations is a daunting task: the number of victims may be large, and the harm done to individuals and communities may have been differentiated, devastating and irreversible and have long-term adverse implications. For governments coming out of war, monetary compensation also requires considerable funding by the state. If they have viewed and portrayed the civilian population as an adversary party to the war, governments may view reparations as a political issue or concession and not as compensation.

Reparations may be ordered by a court and as such they are conceptually tied to the culpability of the suspected perpetrators. Where the courts fail to convict such persons, victims often lose their prospect of reparations. A reparations programme that is linked to court cases offers victims both accountability for the crimes and monetary compensation to provide acknowledgement and enable a transition. However, such a programme is also limited in its reach by virtue of the partial approach of a court case: the case establishes the innocence or culpability of particular persons for particular acts within a particular location and time frame. It does not deal with the conflict and its violence and victims in their entirety. For this reason, some advocate reparations programmes independent of convictions, established through law and covering whole categories of victims, such as family members of those killed or disappeared, torture or rape victims, forcibly displaced persons, abductees, children born as a result of sexual violence.

Reparations are one of the UN’s four pillars of TJ, the other three being criminal justice, truth telling and institutional reform (Gissel 2017). Moreover, the international blueprint specifies that a reparations policy should not stand alone, but be complemented by other TJ mechanisms, such as criminal trials or a truth commission. According to the influential policy group, the International Center for Transitional Justice, ‘a reparations program that is not accompanied by measures to ensure that perpetrators be held accountable effectively asks victims to trade away their right to justice in order to receive the support that is also their due’ (Magarrelln.d., 2). The UN’s Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law provide victims with a right to prompt, adequate and effective reparation. Lisa Magarrell (n.d., 1), head of the reparations unit at the New York-based International Centre for Transitional Justice, argues that international law is ‘by now, fairly clear’ that a duty to provide reparations exists. However, this does not mean that this is carried out in practice. Many governments avoid or refuse to provide reparations in the wake of terror, repression or conflict.


The rationale for selecting the topic for the collaborative project stems from a workshop held at Gulu University in January 2020 which built on earlier TJ courses and conversations organised by the authors of this proposal. This recent workshop drew together participants who were students at Gulu University or staff at civil society organisations or NGOs in northern Uganda. Several had had experiences of the war in northern Uganda, which were chiefly fought between the national army and the LRA, an armed insurgent group led by Joseph Kony. In this workshop, it was clear that there was a strong desire in the general population for reparations in the form of compensation to victims and apology for harm done by the conflict parties, including the national government. At the same time, as was highlighted in the workshop, Uganda’s new National TJ Policy takes an ambiguous stance on reparations. This led the project group to decide to study reparations from different institutional and non-institutional perspectives. In addition, several project members have worked on the topic already and/or have followed the development – across several drafts – of the National Transitional Justice Policy, 2019. The topic thus draws and builds on knowledge situated in and around Gulu University, contributing to the latter’s aim of community involvement.


2.788030336610342, 32.316860868306385
Building Stronger Universities (BSU)
P.O.Box 166, Gulu (U)

Research Team

Gulu Team
  1. Otto Adol Ben
  2. Alidri Agatha
  3. Stella Apecu Laloyo
  4. Lioba Lenhart
  5. Aloysius Malagala
Danish Team
  1. Martin Mennecke
  2. Line Engbo Gissel


Building Stronger Universities (BSU)-Gulu is a multifaceted programme aimed at strengthening research capacity at Gulu University in northern Uganda