Transitional Justice in Northern Uganda and the Invisibility of Children Born of War

Northern Uganda was engulfed in a civil conflict from 1986 to 2006 between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government. An interesting twist in the subsequent post-war recovery and transitional justice (TJ) process relates to the plight of children born of war (CBW). In order to make TJ a reality, this blog post considers CBW as a unique category of victims meriting special attention due to their vulnerability. It also calls for more support from members of the regional and international communities.

The phenomenon of CBW refers to children born as a result of armed conflict, with one parent belonging to the local community and the other parent belonging to a foreign armed group. In 2018, the government’s Justice Law and Order Sector (JLOS) carried out a pilot study on the birth registrations of CBW in Northern Uganda. It was established that there are approximately 4,000 – 6,000 CBW in the Acholi sub-region of Northern Uganda. The study conceptualises CBW using three categories—those born when their mothers were in rebel captivity, those born of Ugandan soldiers during the war, and those born in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps.  It highlights the need to consider the rights and special circumstances of CBW during TJ processes. Within this context, there are a host of TJ processes, such as prosecution at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the use of traditional justice mechanisms.

The LRA, a rebel movement under the command of Joseph Kony, often attacked civilian locations, causing massive devastation and gross human rights violations.  These included acts of sexual violence, murder, and the recruitment of children as soldiers. Most of the formerly abducted women and girls returned to their communities with children born out of forced marriages.

The International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) office in Uganda observed similar experiences, with formerly abducted women and girls with children facing innumerable challenges such as stigma, discrimination, and social rejection. A Member of Parliament noted that “These children born of war are now youths. They see people who [are] driving cars or children going to school and wonder why it is them that had to be born in such a background. They have no fathers”. Similar findings were made by Teddy Atim, whose research explored the recovery of young people in post-war Northern Uganda. In particular, she observed devastating social and economic effects on women survivors of wartime sexual violence and their CBW. She recommends that greater attention be paid to individual vulnerabilities. According to the JLOS study, most of the children do not live with their biological mothers but are housed by foster parents, good Samaritans, and care homes. They are alienated from their ancestral communities because many were fathered by rebels. This suggests that there is a need to address the challenges faced by CBW as a unique category of victims under TJ processes.

Policy Developments

Transitional justice refers to the different ways in which countries respond to periods of conflict and mass atrocities, emphasising four key approaches: criminal prosecutions, truth-seeking, reparations for victims, and structural reforms. The process of TJ in Northern Uganda has received mixed reactions from victims, and some are increasingly skeptical about the ability of the criminal justice mechanisms to deliver justice. Others argue for the use of complementary measures like traditional justice mechanisms to promote both reconciliation and accountability.  In June 2019, Uganda adopted a National Transitional Justice Policy, three months after the adoption of the African Union Transitional Justice Policy. The policy was founded on the peace negotiations in Juba and the Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation (AAR).

The formulation of the policy was majorly the work of JLOS and the Uganda Law Reform Commission. Local and international non-governmental organisations like Emerging Solutions Africa (ESA), Uganda Victims Foundation (UVF) and Redress played a pivotal role in advocating the adoption of the policy. With the new policy, victims’ representatives envisage the establishment of a reparations programme for victims of the conflict which would operate in addition to the ongoing accountability mechanism. This provides a good framework for reparations to CBW and victims of sexual violence.

In order to implement the TJ Policy, there is a need to consider CBW as a unique category of victims meriting special attention under TJ mechanisms. This is also consistent with the view that victims possess a transformative vocation, besides the participation/centrality approach.  Some victims prefer to reconcile with the perpetrators, while others demand accountability and/or mechanisms to rebuild their lives. Since many of them have mothers who were victims of sexual violence, CBW have strong relationships with this group. Consequently, it is important to consider how these social contexts can be accounted for. Due to the diverse experiences of violence among people in Northern Uganda, TJ approaches continue to draw mixed responses, for example as regards the interventions by the ICC and traditional justice mechanisms. These perspectives were recognised though not substantially addressed by the new policy. Nonetheless, it is important to consider CBW in the reparative programs of the ICC and other criminal justice mechanisms.

The TJ Policy does not specifically mention CBW as a vulnerable group in need of special attention. However, it provides for the rehabilitation and reintegration of affected persons. Such formal mechanisms, including reparations, would help CBW to rebuild their lives. In addition, they should be eligible to participate in traditional justice and reconciliatory processes. This intersection of TJ mechanisms is relevant to accommodating the divergent interests of victims regarding the application of judicial initiatives for redress and reconciliation. On a positive note, the TJ Policy recognises traditional justice mechanisms as a complement to formal processes. In relation to CBW, local mechanisms are useful in efforts to trace the family, parentage and identity of children born as a result of sexual violence in conflict. Despite these positive developments, the generalization of vulnerable groups within the policy could delay the effective integration of CBW in post-war Northern Uganda.

The other notable policy measure relates to the registration of births. The majority of CBW do not possess birth certificates, as observed in the JLOS study. This means that they are almost legally non-existent since they are denied the opportunity to register for national identity cards.  Consequently, they have been re-victimised through numerous human rights abuses such as illegal adoption, child labour, sexual exploitation, early marriages, military recruitment, human trafficking, stigmatisation at schools and health facilities. Before the official adoption of the Policy, JLOS announced that it would allocate money to the processing of birth certificates of CBW. However, this has yet to occur owing to financial constraints.


As a way of linking the TJ policy approaches to the initiatives of the government, the implementation of measures such as victims’ reparations and social empowerment is recommended through the formal adoption of a Transitional Justice Act. Although lack of identity and birth registration are common issues in Uganda, the situation of CBW is much more complex, as many were born in neighbouring countries like South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where the LRA also operated. The National Identity Registration Authority (NIRA) should revise its requirements in order to enable CBW to register as nationals of Uganda. This could form part of a transformative TJ process that gives victims dignity, akin to Ruti Teitel’s second level of the transitional narratives. On a positive note, there were some state initiatives to register CBW in May 2019. However, they stalled due to financial constraints.

CBW should be prioritised as recipients of immediate technical and finical assistance from state and development partners. The opinions of CBW should be included when designing national programs to ensure that the planned outcomes respond to their unique needs.

Finally, the complex case of Northern Uganda can be used as a lens to develop appropriate TJ mechanisms in similar contexts. By analysing TJ vis-à-vis vulnerable groups like CBW, we can gain a better understanding of the social, economic, and psychological impacts of mass conflict in other contexts and countries, such as DRC and Myanmar. This is particularly vital since rape has often been used as a weapon of war in conflicts in DRC, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Dealing with the unique challenges that affect these victims, on individual and society levels, is thus a crucial element in achieving TJ and effectively restoring post-conflict communities.


Tonny Raymond Kirabira is a lawyer and PhD Candidate in law at the University of Portsmouth researching accountability mechanisms in Uganda and Myanmar.

Mugero Jesse is a lawyer and Program Officer at the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) Kampala Office.

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