On December 6, 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague will commence the trial of Dominic Onwgen, a former top commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Ongwen is charged with committing war crimes and crimes against humanity that allegedly occurred between 2002 and 2004 when the LRA was engaged in an insurgency against the government of Uganda. He is alleged to have committed the crimes in the Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps of Lukodi, Odek, Pajule-Lapul, and Abok, all located in Northern Uganda.
Victims of crimes under investigation by the ICC can apply to participate in proceedings through a lawyer, apply for reparations, seek assistance, and submit communications to the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP). Such participation is voluntary and victims have to complete a written application that is then considered by the court.
In preparation for the trial, the ICC field outreach office in Uganda has continued conducting activities aimed at creating awareness among the victims about the ICC in general and victims’ rights to participate in the current proceedings. The Victims Participation and Reparations Section (VPRS), which is part of the ICC’s Registry, has been helping victims complete application forms for participation. Before the capture of Ongwen, the VPRS had received approximately 1,500 victim applicants across Northern Uganda. Most of these victims were from the situation in Northern Uganda in general and were not specific to the Onwgen case, and only a few of these were from the four former IDP camps mentioned above. However, with the revival of Ongwen’s case at the ICC, the interest amongst victims from the IDP camps to apply and participate is “overwhelming” and “positive” as described by community leaders in Northern Uganda. To date, 2,026 victims have been accepted to participate in Ongwen’s trial.
The ICC’s involvement in assisting victims to apply for participation stretches back as far as 2006 when arrest warrants were first issued in relation to the conflict in Northern Uganda. At that time, assistance could not be narrowed down to specific geographic locations but had to be conducted all over Northern Uganda because the location of the crimes (as well as the crimes themselves) that Ongwen was charged with had not been made public by the court. The court’s activities had also not been well received by leaders and community members in Acholi Sub-Region who viewed it as an interruption to ongoing efforts to end the conflict peacefully. The Juba peace negotiations were about to commence, and the amnesty program that was running at the time had resulted in the surrender of thousands of LRA combatants.
With the surrender of Ongwen and subsequent publication of the crimes he was charged with, including the geographical scope of the charges, the ICC field outreach office and the VPRS increased their activities. A considerable amount of time was spent in the communities as instructed by the Single Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova in her March 4, 2015 decision establishing principles on the victims’ application process.
In September 2015, the OTP announced that additional charges would be brought against Ongwen and that the geographical scope of investigations would be expanded to include Odek, Pajule-Lapul, and Abok where Ongwen was also alleged to have led attacks against civilian populations then residing in IDP camps. (The original charges were limited to the Lukodi IDP camp where the ICC had conducted its investigations.) However, with the broadening of the geographical scope of investigations, the VPRS had to extend the victims’ application process in the new locations of Pajule-Lapul, Odek, and Abok as well.
In January 2016, Pre-Trial Chamber II of the ICC held a confirmation of charges hearing against Ongwen in The Hague. The process for victim participation was put in place prior to the hearing and over 2,000 victims – the majority of whom were from Lukodi – were represented by their lawyers at the confirmation hearing. Many of these victims were able also follow the confirmation of charges hearing, which was broadcast in their communities. The hearing resulted into the confirmation of 70 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity on March 23, 2016.
During the first status conference held on May 23 to set the trial start date, the ICC judges instructed the Registry to continue with the victim application process. They were given a deadline of October 6 to prepare and submit all applications – a deadline that has now raised concerns in the affected victim’s communities given the high number of potential victims of the case. In previous cases, applications to participate in proceedings were accepted by chambers on a rolling basis throughout the trial.
International Justice (IJ) Monitor interacted with victims in Lukodi and Abok shortly after the VPRS carried a registration exercise and sought their views about the above deadline. As expected, many community members thought the time period was too short given that the Ongwen case may be their only opportunity to achieve justice for LRA related atrocities. A community leader spoken to in Abok indicated that “many of the victims in our community will not get the chance to be part of this very important process despite their high interest.”
By the time of writing this article, over 2,000 additional victims in Abok wishing to participate in the trial had failed to apply during the short time availed by the ICC in their community. As an alternative, the victims registered with their local leaders in the hope that they could persuade the VPRS to go back to their communities. However, it must be noted that VPRS is acting on a short timeline because it is bound to the decision of the judges who set the October 6 deadline.
A representative of the ICC field outreach office said “the ICC field office spent eight days in each of these communities and worked with local leaders during the application processes. We tried to ensure that there was fair representation from all the families living in these communities given that our time was limited.”
The number already reached is considered to be a big achievement given that all this had to be accomplished in a few months’ time. According the ICC representative, “The response by the victims to apply for participation has been overwhelming. We are overwhelmed by the interest victims are showing to participate in the case but the major challenge is that the time is also limited which makes it difficult for us to cover all victims. The application exercise in the communities has generally been well received.”
The limited time available has therefore been the biggest constraint that the ICC field office has faced. Explaining to the numerous victims the time limitation for the application process is difficult for the ICC field staff as well as leaders. This short period for applications is also being viewed negatively by the victims. Many actors are concerned that this will adversely impact of the image of the court throughout the process. In addition, this situation breeds a state of hopelessness among members of the communities that have waited for more than 10 years to get the chance to be part of a process that they are now being shut out of.
Why Victims Have Responded Positively
During interactions with community members in Lukodi and Abok, IJ Monitor asked why they chose to apply in such large numbers for participation in the trial against Ongwen. Community members cited various reasons ranging from their desire to see justice done, to expressing the desire to receive reparations in the event that Ongwen is convicted.
One community member from Lukodi said, “My hut was burnt by the LRA, my parents’ hut was also burnt, and all the property inside the huts was destroyed. My sister was also killed in a massacre by the LRA. I therefore want to see justice done.”
A local leader in Lukodi said, “People here applied to participate because of what they went through and the suffering that they underwent. I personally lost a son of my uncle whom I was taking care of as my own.”
As noted by the above comments, many of the victims who registered for participation are survivors of LRA attacks and massacres allegedly led by Ongwen in their villages. Many of these victims lost their loved ones and their property as a result of these attacks. Therefore, they want to see justice done.
However, there is also reason to believe that the arrest of Ongwen could have played a big role in motivating victims to come forward for participation. Prior to his arrest, many victims did not see the point of applying to participate. Another reason could be attributed to the change in attitudes towards the ICC by conflict affected communities. When the ICC first intervened in 2004 and 2005, it was initially opposed by conflict affected communities and local leaders who feared that the ICC would interfere with ongoing peace process and the amnesty program in Uganda. With the return of peace, however, the ICC is better understood and appreciated.
It is a positive development that many victims in the affected communities have openly expressed their support for the trial and willingness to apply for participation. The onus therefore remains upon the ICC field outreach unit to reach as many victims as possible within the short time left as well as the judges at the ICC, who ought to be more flexible and consider extending the October 6 deadline for the registration of victim participants.
Lino Owor Ogora is the Director and Co-Founder of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a local NGO based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women and communities to promote justice, development and economic recovery in Northern Uganda. This article is based on enquiries made on the ground by the author.