July 29, 2019

A Conversation and Interview with Olara Otunnu

McNulty Prize Juror Olara Otunnu sat down with 2017 Prize Winner Lana Abu-Hijleh at the 2019 Resnick Aspen Action Forum to discuss peace, moral courage, and his own inspiring story.

Olara Otunnu has been a juror for the McNulty Prize since its inception in 2007, and a Trustee of the Aspen Institute since 1992. He has had an expansive and inspiring career as an pro-democracy activist, as a global diplomat, as a peacemaker, and as a reformer. On July 24, 2019, Olara sat down with Palestinian development expert and 2017 McNulty Prize Winner Lana Abu Hijleh to give a rare glimpse into his personal story, the values and events that have shaped him, and his outlook on peace, reconciliation, and the challenge of getting a society to reject what they have learned to live with in favor of something better.

Olara shared various chapters of his life: from his upbringing in rural, Northern Uganda,, his time as a student activist against the Idi Amin regime, his long career as a UN diplomat, his return to Uganda in 2011 to run for President, and his ongoing advocacy for human rights. Read some of the highlights from the conversation below:

As a student activist and leader during the Idi Amin regime in Uganda, you and your fellow students represented one of the last pockets of resistance to what was a genocidal dictatorship. What was your experience during this time and how did it shape your future?

Olara: When I was elected president of the student guild at Makerere University, Idi Amin was in power. Political activities and political parties were banned, but the student guild and the student activities remain intact. So the hopes of the country now focused on this student body being the voice for the people, speaking up about the atrocities, about the disappearances, about the horrible things that were going on in the country. This role was thrust upon us. We didn't choose it.

When we refused to be corrupted, Amin chose to pounce. He dissolved the student body, dismissed me as student president, and had troops surround the campus. With the help of students and various sympathizers, I was able to get out into Nairobi and Tanzania and eventually further afield. I'm lucky to be alive, to have escaped from that period. I would then be very much involved subsequently in the resistance against Idi Amin, and when Amin was removed from power many years later, I was part of a small group that was the administration in charge of the country in the interim period. 30 of us were in charge of the country.

What are some of the roles you have held at the UN?

Olara: My first stint at the UN was as the leader of the delegation of Uganda, Uganda's ambassador, so I was very active in the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the Commission on Human Rights. I was later named Under Secretary General and my brief was developing a regime for the protection of children and women in situations of conflict and their rehabilitation and development after conflict.

Can you tell us about some of your experiences visiting conflict zones during that time?

Olara: Generally, when we witness conflict situations, we see and we think of the ugliness, the evil, the bloodshed. That is what immediately hits us. But what we don't always notice, which I was always very struck by, was just how much goodness, how much generosity, how much incredible sacrifice is done by regular, ordinary people in the same theater, in the same place where there's this ugliness and hatred and bloodshed. It's as if evil and good were competing for supremacy in this one theater.

In many situations of conflict that take on identity issues, whether of religion, ethnicity, it doesn't happen naturally, it doesn't happen by itself. I think most communities left to themselves can live together. They know how to support each other. A group, a leader orchestrates, manipulates, develops a narrative, usually a false narrative, to mobilize around this issue and have us and them. That is really what I saw over and over again.

What we don't always notice is just how much goodness, how much generosity, how much incredible sacrifice is done by regular, ordinary people in the same theater, in the same place where there's ugliness and hatred and bloodshed.

Olara Otunnu

In 2011, you returned to Uganda to run for President as the Uganda People’s Party’s candidate. What pushed you to return to the land of your birth?

Olara: I decided some years ago, having spent most of my professional life abroad, that even though I made some modest contribution in the UN to different countries in conflict, post-conflict peace and so on, that there was this one little place, this God-forsaken Banana Republic called Uganda, where I happened to have been born, and where the condition of our people was abominable. I decided I could no longer accept this from outside. I had to go back, be involved, bear testimony, be part of the struggle, try to make change.

When I returned, I found that there had been a radical transformation, in my view much for the worse, and that the things which had shaped me and so many people had broken and gone. A lot of this didn't happen by itself. It wasn't gradual retrogression—it was manipulated, engineered, created at the political social level to make the country safe for a certain kind of rule. Worse, the people had been so brainwashed and beaten over the decades, that they had now come to accept as normal this radically abnormal situation. They would say to me, “but this is how it is, this is how it is in Uganda. But you have been away for so long.” So part of the struggle for me was helping the people realize that they deserved so much better, that from their own soil there was a better heritage, and that they could look forward to a better future.

You have faced many setbacks throughout your career. What has given you the resilience to keep on fighting?

Olara: When there are important ideas, where there's a rule of law or justice or reconciliation, where people are fighting against impunity or corruption; it's worth keeping these ideas alive. It's worth fighting for that better day and for that better time. Because even if it may not be today or tomorrow, fruit will show. Justice will prevail.

Watch the full interview between Olara Otunnu and Lana Abu-Hijleh below

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