A Reversal of Roles: How the Government and Victims in Northern Uganda Have Switched Their Positions on the ICC

Opening statements in the International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who is charged with committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in northern Uganda, are scheduled to begin December 6, 2016. Ongwen’s trial, however, comes after several years of an uphill battle by the ICC to win support in Uganda. Having been asked to investigate the LRA for war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2004, the ICC is today openly criticized by the very government that invited it in the first place. Oppositely, the ICC now has significant support from conflict-affected communities who initially opposed it.

The ICC’s involvement in Uganda started in 2004 with a referral by the Ugandan government, asking the ICC to investigate the LRA for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in northern Uganda. The ICC’s intervention came at a time when the conflict in northern Uganda was at its peak, with the LRA carrying out daily attacks against the civilian population, the majority of whom were living in internally displaced persons’ (IDP) camps.

Given the prevailing situation, the ICC’s entry into Uganda was met with stiff opposition from religious leaders, traditional leaders, civil society organizations, and other peace activists who argued that the ICC would interfere with ongoing efforts to end the conflict. An amnesty program was being promoted to encourage LRA combatants to abandon the rebellion, and this had tremendous success leading to the surrender of thousands of rebels. The Juba Peace Talks were also about to commence under the mediation of the government of South Sudan. The ICC was therefore seen as a destabilizing factor that would increase the LRA’s resolve to continue with rebellion.

Despite the above negative sentiments, the government of Uganda went ahead and referred the situation in the country to the ICC. The announcement of the decision to begin an investigation by the ICC was made at a joint press conference convened by the ICC prosecutor and attended by President Museveni, in London on January 29, 2004. The ICC relied on the government for gathering evidence and making decisions on which LRA commanders to prosecute, and the government cooperated with the court’s requests. For example, during Ongwen’s confirmation of charges hearing, the prosecution relied heavily on radio communication interceptions gathered by the national army, Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF).

Backed by the government on the one hand, but opposed by conflict-affected communities on the other hand, the ICC met a hostile reception, particularly in northern Uganda. In response, the ICC’s then-Public Information and Dissemination Section (PIDS) in Uganda heavily engaged in a public relations campaign aimed at promoting an understanding of the ICC and changing public perceptions. Numerous community visits were made, hundreds of radio talk shows were conducted, and several information sessions were held. The people in northern Uganda slowly came to appreciate the ICC and what it stood for.

The return of peace to northern Uganda further helped to change community perceptions about the ICC. More than ten years ago when they virulently opposed the ICC, the conflict in northern Uganda was at its peak, and thousands of people were confined in IDP camps. The people in northern Uganda simply wanted the conflict to end and viewed the ICC as a destabilizing factor that would disrupt the ongoing peace processes. With the end of the fighting, however, many survivors became willing to support accountability processes.

The capture of Ongwen is perhaps another factor that played a role in further changing community attitudes about the ICC. When the ICC intervened in 2004, nobody believed it was possible to capture the LRA top leadership, who had evaded the Ugandan army for close to two decades. Many people who wanted peace were quickly disappointed when they discovered that the ICC had no army and relied instead on the government. With the capture of Ongwen and a trial actually in the offing, the trust of many people in the ICC has been restored. Many victims now look forward to reparations in the event that Ongwen is convicted.

Far from the hostile reception it received in 2004, the ICC today enjoys a much higher level of popularity, demonstrated by a show of public support from local leaders, civil society organizations, and conflict survivors. For example, on May 19, 2016, Rwot David Onen Acana II, the Acholi Paramount Chief publicly expressed support for the ICC at a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the Lukodi massacre. The support for the ICC has also been demonstrated by the mass registration of thousands of victims to participate the trial of Ongwen.

The government of Uganda, on the other hand, has turned into a bitter critic of the ICC. Contrary to the cooperation exhibited in 2004, the government is one of the biggest critics of the ICC today, not just in Uganda, but in Africa as a whole. Indeed President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, who led efforts to invite the ICC in 2004, has recently been one of the foremost opponents of the court. But why?

The first reason has to do with the question of why the government called in the ICC in the first place. Some proponents, in what has been referred to as the politics of the ICC, have argued that the government referred their situation to the ICC not because they wanted the LRA prosecuted, but because they had failed to defeat the LRA. The government’s strategy at the time was to isolate the LRA in the face of the international community. The government was never genuinely interested in prosecution of the LRA.

The second factor lies in Uganda’s fear of a possible ICC intervention in the future as a result of the deteriorating political situation in Uganda. President Museveni has been in power for over 30 years, facilitated by a repeated amendment of the constitution and a violent crackdown of the opposition. In the run up to the last presidential election, held in February 2016 and thereafter, the government used extreme force to suppress the opposition. The current situation points to a future where crimes against humanity are inevitable as the government, through police brutality, suppresses any opposition, a factor that will put Uganda on a collision course with the ICC. Uganda’s attempt to distance itself from the ICC could therefore be in a bid to avoid a scenario of the Kenyan situation when the ICC intervened following the post-election violence in 2007. Although a formal withdrawal from the ICC would be the only way to more effectively avoid future ICC interventions.

Matters are also not helped by the wave of unpopularity against the ICC that is currently taking hold across the African continent. African states, led by the African Union (AU) believe that the ICC is a biased institution focusing only on the prosecution of African leaders. This is demonstrated inter-alia by repeated demands from African states that immunity should be granted for sitting heads of state. As an act of defiance against the ICC, many African ICC member states have allowed Sudan President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, who is wanted by the ICC for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, to travel freely to their countries rather than arresting him. Most recently on October 18, 2016, Burundi’s parliament passed a resolution for the country to withdraw from the ICC. In the days following Burundi’s decision, both South Africa and Gambia also formally communicated their intention to withdraw from the ICC.

Uganda, as a key player in the African Union, has also been vocal in criticizing the ICC. At the swearing in ceremony of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta on April 09, 2013, President Museveni referred to the ICC as an institution that was being abused by western powers to promote their agenda. In a show of opposition to the ICC, President Museveni invited President Al-Bashir to Uganda for his inauguration in May 2016, where he called the ICC “a bunch of useless people.”

As the ICC prepares to commence the trial of Dominic Ongwen in December, it remains to be seen how it will deal with hostility from the Ugandan government. The government of Uganda’s support is critical in ensuring the success of the trial of Ongwen and any future trials that the ICC may hold for the other LRA commanders who are still at large. The outcome of the trial and whether or not victims get reparations will also be a key determinant of the ICC’s popularity with conflict-affected communities.

Lino Owor Ogora is the Director and Co-Founder of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a local non-government organization based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women and communities to promote justice, development and economic recovery in northern Uganda.