During the January 2016 International Criminal Court (ICC) confirmation of charges proceedings against Dominic Ongwen, a live screening of the hearing was broadcast in Lukodi, Northern Uganda. Ongwen, a former rebel commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was facing 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity charges allegedly committed against four camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Northern Uganda. Two months after those proceedings, pre-trial chamber judges confirmed all charges brought against the accused.
Yesterday, I had the opportunity to sit in and independently observe the ICC’s first outreach session in Lukodi since the confirmation of charges decision. While the outreach sessions I have attended in the past, when all arrest warrants were still outstanding, only involved staff from the ICC Press Information and Outreach Section (PIOS) (formerly known as the Public Information and Documentation Section (PIDS)) addressing the communities, this particular one struck me as unique because it was a joint collaboration between the PIOS and Victims Participation and Reparations Section (VPRS) offices of the court.* This approach recognizes that although community outreach sessions often generate general questions on the ICC’s work, in a number of cases, technical questions on victims’ rights may come up, and these are best addressed by VPRS staff.
The Kampala-based ICC team attended the outreach session to update the community on the recent court decision.
One glaring challenge I noticed almost immediately were the disproportionate numbers – two ICC staff members addressed over 300 community participants. Although this did not affect the quality of the session, in light of the very wide geographical scope of the Ongwen case, the ICC should make arrangements to increase the number of staff reaching out to affected communities going forward.
Following presentations by the ICC staff, the floor opened up for questions. The first question took me by surprise: an elderly gentleman wanted to know why some ICC officials brought policemen with them to community meetings. He reported that this often creates tension in the community because of the general mistrust the public has towards the police. The issue he raised highlights the need for court staff to always be aware of the context in which their work is implemented. In countries like Uganda, where there are often allegations of police brutality, the court has to exercise caution when requesting the assistance of state institutions while carrying out its work.
Another community member wanted to know whether the calls by the Acholi religious and traditional leaders for Ongwen to be forgiven will be taken into account by the judges in their decision. In responding to his concern, Jimmy Otim, ICC outreach assistant, explained that the court’s judicial mandate excludes issues pertaining to forgiveness.
Community members also raised serious concerns regarding the suspension of ICC outreach programs that previously aired on community radio stations. One of the participants noted that radio is the easiest way for them to access information on the court. They therefore wanted to know why this decision was taken and called for the immediate resumption of these programs to keep them updated on the Ongwen case. It is important to note that for any engagements with affected communities to succeed, there has to be two-way communication between the court and such communities, a principle that has been recognized by the court. Decisions to implement and/or discontinue the use of certain outreach strategies should be taken in consultation with communities.
A great deal of interest in the issue of victim participation was expressed during the outreach session. One community member reported that since March 2016, about four victims who applied to participate in the Ongwen case have since died, and he wanted to know the procedure followed by the ICC in such cases.
The representative from VPRS, Josephine Atim, urged the community leaders to immediately report such cases where possible to the legal representatives. However, if they have no information regarding who their lawyers are, then they can report this information to VPRS, which will inform the legal representatives of the deceased applicants. This exchange emphasized that local leadership in the community has a very important role to play in the court’s work. Community leaders can assist in mobilizing people to participate in ICC activities and serve as a critical information conduit between the court and their community.
Members of the Lukodi community also emphasized the importance they attach to the protection of their identities. One person shared his fears that at some point in the trial, the judges may order that his identity is revealed to the accused’s lawyers, and he wanted to know how such a situation would be handled.
Inquiries were made on why certain community members who applied to participate in the case have not received reference numbers to-date. Reference numbers are important because they are used to anonymously identify each victim who has applied to participate in the case. In her response, Atim explained the elaborate process followed by VPRS before, during, and after a victim fills out an application form. She noted that part of the challenge VPRS faced in this case is having limited time (especially since the OTP notice document to expand charges against Ongwen issued was only issued in September 2015) and manpower to meticulously cover the full geographical area. However, she said that the absence of such a reference number does not diminish the victimhood of any community member who has been admitted to participate in the case. She informed the community that VPRS would organize a separate meeting in the near future to provide all applicants with their application reference numbers.
The issue of legal representation of victims in the Ongwen case featured prominently in the discussions. In November 2015, a single judge granted a request of some victims to appoint external legal representatives. The other victims who did not appoint a lawyer are represented by the ICC’s Office of Public Counsel for Victims (OPCV). While the community members appreciated the work of their lawyers, there appeared to be confusion and concern among victims and members of the affected communities about the two types of legal representation. According to one community member, tension could develop in some families in which, for example, a parent and minor are each represented by a different lawyer. Another participant wanted to know whether victims have a right to appeal to the judges in the event that a conflict emerges between the two groups of legal representatives.
A rather sensitive issue discussed at the meeting was in relation to the rights of the accused person. A female participant expressed concern regarding the lack of information on the representatives of Dominic Ongwen. Her fear was that his lawyers may visit the community without their knowledge. In response, the ICC staff noted that defense lawyers may come to the village to collect evidence that may exonerate Ongwen, but it is the right of community members to decide whether or not to speak to defense counsel and investigators.
A number of community members were also interested in understanding the appeal process as well as the grounds of Ongwen’s appeal of the confirmation of charges decision. One participant wondered why Ongwen’s lawyers were appealing before the trial process commences. Another suggested that there was no need to go through a trial when everybody knows that atrocities were committed in Northern Uganda. From my observation, these were challenging issues during the outreach event. Although court representatives must be cognizant of the plight of affected communities and their often negative attitude towards an accused person, they must continuously remind communities of the importance accorded to fair trial rights under the Rome Statute.
Community members also wanted to know the implications of having a high number of charges on the length of the trial process. One gentleman, for example, suggested that with 70 charges, the trial of Ongwen may take up to 700 years to be finalized. Although the time line he suggested is indeed an exaggeration, it demonstrated some of the concerns the affected communities have regarding the time it will take for this trial to be completed. Many of them wondered if they will live to see the end of the case.
It is through outreach that affected communities understand the work of the ICC. Without forums to speak out openly about their concerns, the justice dispensed by the court will only benefit a limited audience that is within close proximity to The Hague, where the ICC is located. Community outreach programs need to be supplemented by public information sessions with other situation country constituencies, which although not specifically covered by the scope of the case, are crucial in amplifying the voices of affected communities in the search for post-conflict justice.
*This sentence was clarified from an earlier version. In other ICC situations, VPRS and PIOS conduct outreach sessions together. It was during the period before any arrest warrants in Uganda were executed that PIOS (formerly PIDS) conducted sessions on its own.
International Justice Monitor is grateful to Lino Owor Ogora, Co-founder and Director of Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a local NGO based in Gulu district for translating the session.