Live Screening of Ongwen Hearing in Northern Uganda: Lessons Learned

This post was written by Lino Owor Ogora, Director, Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), an NGO based in Gulu District, Uganda, that works with children, youth, women, and communities to promote justice, development, and economic recovery in Northern Uganda. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the Open Society Justice Initiative.

Last week, the International Criminal Court (ICC) began confirmation of charges hearings in the case against Dominic Ongwen. Ongwen, an alleged commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Northern Uganda. This posts reflects on an outreach event in Lukodi, where the hearings were showed live to victims and members of the local community.

Some of these crimes were allegedly committed in Lukodi in May 2004, when Ongwen allegedly led the LRA in an attack on the village.

It came as no surprise therefore that the people of Lukodi were excited about the fact that the confirmation of charges hearing for Dominic Ongwen was going to be screened live in their town.

As the case of Lukodi will demonstrate, however, organizing such an event in a remote rural community in Northern Uganda comes with many challenges. These include cultural dynamics, logistical challenges, translation needs, and others.

To ensure the screening was culturally relevant, the ICC Outreach Unit decided to partner with local organizations. Local organizations are often familiar with the dynamics of a given location and can more easily mobilize people given that they are in touch with the local community. In Lukodi, the ICC partnered with the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI) and the Lukodi Community Reconciliation Team.

Strong ground mobilization is also key to ensure the success of the event. Mobilization to host the confirmation of charges hearing in Lukodi started about two weeks prior to the event. It involved meeting with community leaders and representatives to brief them on the screening and let them know what to expect. These leaders and community representatives in turn spread the word to their community members.

Several logistical challenges also had to be overcome. Lukodi village, like many other places in Northern Uganda, lacks reliable and stable electricity. Given its rural location, Lukodi also lacks amenities such as hotels where events such as conferences can be hosted. In this case, the screening was held at Lukodi Primary School. Additionally, many items needed for the event had to be ferried in from Gulu town. These included hiring a tent that would shield people from the scorching sun as well as IT equipment, TV screens, and video projectors.

In addition, the organizers had to figure out how a live video stream from The Hague could be relayed to Lukodi. This may sound straightforward because we live in the Internet era where videos can be streamed live and fast using 4G connections. But to the dismay of technicians who went Lukodi to conduct an assessment, the mobile telecom connection was so slow and unstable that it could not support 4G technology. The only solution seemed to be creating a satellite link with The Hague.

However, on the morning of the hearings the equipment for establishing the satellite link with The Hague had not yet arrived. This catastrophe was averted by NTV Uganda, a local television station, announcing that they would broadcast proceedings for about four hours. So all we needed was to tap into the signal by NTV Uganda. A TV decoder and antennae were quickly borrowed from one of the teachers of Lukodi Primary School, and we were live on air.

The ICC and FJDI crew were on the ground by 8:30am. A crew from Al-Jazeera and the local NTV station followed soon afterwards. The school hall was arranged and prepared to accommodate about 200 people. A large tent was set up in front of the school buildings to accommodate a further 100 people. A large TV screen was set up in the tent for the viewers who would be watching from outside, while a projector was set up in the school hall for the viewers who would be watching from inside.

After much work and labor, the stage was finally set for screening the confirmation of charges hearing at Lukodi Primary School.

The local community members began trickling in at around 9:30 am. They trickled in at such a slow rate that by 11:00 am many seats in the tent outside were still empty and the school hall had only a couple of people. Then, before we knew it, the people began to come in droves, and soon numbered close to 1,000—more than three times the number we expected and had planned for.

At 11:30 am, NTV Uganda interrupted their program schedule. Suddenly, we were watching live proceedings from The Hague. The community watched the proceedings for nearly five hours. ICC outreach officers helped explain the proceedings to the audience and answered questions that arose during the course of the day.

The live screening of court proceedings by the ICC in Northern Uganda has set a precedent for victim participation. It is the first time such an initiative has been undertaken, and many victims and stakeholders in Northern Uganda looked at the event as a way of increasing victim participation. Many victims we spoke to seemed to be happy that they were able to follow proceedings as they unfolded, thus giving them a chance to participate in large numbers. It was fascinating to see many community members turning up in large numbers and braving the heat to watch proceedings.

Despite the success of the day, there are still challenges arising from such a process that need more consideration. One of the challenges is that proceedings were entirely conducted in English, with no provision for translation to victims watching in the communities. The majority of the victims could therefore not fully comprehend what was taking place and had to be content with merely watching the pictures to understand what was happening. Coupled with this, it was also apparent that the majority of victims in communities do not understand court processes and procedures. As a result, many victims got bored and left before the end of the event. In addition, the cost of screening such an event must also be taken into consideration. Although it is cheaper compared to transporting hundreds of victims to The Hague, it could still prove costly and unsustainable, especially in scenarios where trials are long and protracted.

To help solve these problems, the ICC could consider making available local courtroom commentators to translate and explain events as they unfold to local audiences who could be following proceedings in their communities. The case of Northern Uganda is a clear demonstration that many victims are interested in participating and following events. Language should not be an obstacle to victim participation. At all viewing sites in communities, there is a need to ensure that there are local experts who can explain proceedings and answer victims’ questions.

Moreover, the ICC should strengthen its partnership with local stakeholders on the ground. In Northern Uganda, the screening of the confirmation of charges hearing was successful because of a strong partnership with local organizations. The ICC partnered with local organizations in all nine locations where the screenings were conducted. This should be upheld.

Overall, the idea to screen the confirmation of charges hearing was good and has proven successful in increasing victim participation in these hearings. The ICC should certainly adopt this outreach strategy if the case should go to trial.


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