The Importance of Comprehensive Outreach in the Case of Ongwen and the Role of Civil Society Organizations

On December 6, 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) will commence the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) charged with committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in the villages of Lukodi, Odek, Abok, and Pajule, in northern Uganda. A key factor that will be significant in ensuring awareness and understanding by victims and the general public in Uganda will be community outreach.

Since the court opened its investigation in 2004, the ICC field office in Uganda has been involved in conducting outreach in the northern part of the country to educate the population about the ICC and how it operates. After the capture of Ongwen in 2015, the ICC field office intensified their outreach activities in the four locations where Ongwen is accused of committing crimes. While the bulk of outreach in northern Uganda has been conducted by the ICC field office, it receives support from local, national, and international Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) working in LRA affected areas. With the commencement of Ongwen’s trial, outreach may need to be conducted on a wider scale and done more frequently to ensure that the people living in affected communities, as well as throughout northern Uganda, are regularly updated and are able to follow proceedings. Community outreach visits and information dissemination over mass media will also be required.

In a conversation I had with Maria Mabinty Kamara, the ICC Outreach Coordinator for Kenya and Uganda, she noted that “outreach impact in the field is significantly enhanced when its communication efforts are complemented by CSOs, local leaders and other influential opinion leaders.” CSOs are well positioned to reinforce the ICC field office, particularly in providing the additional human resources that are needed. As Kamara commented, “Following the ICC Registry revision, field offices are staffed [with] multidisciplinary teams comprising four staff that are charged with the responsibilities of conducting outreach and victims’ participation related activities in Uganda. Field outreach staff members are not always present in all locations in the affected communities.”

CSOs can be key in ensuring that that there is an adequate, accurate, and timely information flow to and from grassroots communities using the appropriate and available channels. This is important because Ongwen’s trial is the first involving a senior commander of the LRA, so extra attention is anticipated locally and nationally.

As demonstrated by previous events, such as Ongwen’s confirmation of charges hearing, CSOs can help mobilize the local population and ensure that events are culturally relevant. As Kamara noted, “During the recent outreach activities organized to prepare the ground for the implementation of victims’ participation application process, through partnerships with various CSOs and local community networks, a total of 31 forums that reached 14,000 potential victims were held. As a result, over 2,000 application forms were collected.  In conclusion, when and wherever it is possible, we are already working through partners to complement our limited capacity.”

The need for the involvement of CSOs in outreach is further reinforced by the fact that many are already involved in working within conflict affected communities in northern Uganda, implementing programs on peace-building and other justice related matters. Such CSOs interface with these communities as they go about implementing their program activities. As these CSOs interact with communities in their routine work, they can be instrumental in updating them about what is happening in the trial of Ongwen. CSOs will therefore need to consider holding information sessions about the trial in the course of their work. Kamara explained that “it is crucial for CSOs that are readily available on the ground, through their various justice and human rights programs, to complement our efforts by providing factual information about the judicial processes to their communities.”

Using these information sessions, CSOs can help provide answers to questions that community members may have. The frequent presence of CSOs in communities can ensure that there are always opportunities for community members to ask questions, receive answers, and in the process clarify misperceptions that exist.

Furthermore, as demonstrated by cases such as the first ICC trial of Thomas Lubanga, trials can turn out to be long, often spanning many months or several years, a factor that could lead to loss of interest on the part of communities. CSOs are vital in ensuring that there is sustained interest by victims and community members in the trial process.

CSOs can also be instrumental in helping to manage expectations of community members. At the moment, thousands of victims have registered to participate in the case of Ongwen, and they may expect reparations at the conclusion of the case. These expectations need to be managed, especially in terms of the time any reparation order from the ICC may take. Given their frequent presence on the ground, and the fact that many of them have formed strong personal relationships with victims living in conflict-affected communities, CSOs are needed to inform the community of what they can or cannot expect out a future reparations scheme.

CSOs can also act as gateways to conflict-affected communities in northern Uganda. With the start of Ongwen’s trial, northern Uganda, and more specifically the four communities of Lukodi, Odek, Pajule, and Abok, are likely to attract hundreds of visitors, researchers, and academics. In 2010 when Uganda hosted the ICC Review Conference in Kampala, visitors who came to attend the conference also visited communities in northern Uganda that were impacted by the conflict. With CSOs present on a daily basis in these communities, they can act as a vital link and gateway to visitors who would want to visit these communities.

In many cases outreach is more effective if there is involvement of all relevant stakeholders, including community based organizations, local leaders, and community members. This ensures that there is ownership of the outreach process and that the right locations and the right participants are selected. CSOs, based on their frequent interactions with community members are vital in ensuring that there is local involvement and that the right locations are targeted.

CSOs also provide good avenues for referrals for victims who may not be covered by ICC reparations schemes or assistance offered by the Trust Fund for Victims. This is because in the course of conducting outreach, it is common to come upon cases of victims requiring immediate assistance, such as medical care or even protection. While the ICC outreach office may not be in position to help these victims immediately, CSOs can often use their networks to refer such victims for assistance.  It is therefore a strong reason for the ICC field office to involve CSOs in outreach sessions.

Finally, CSOs are critical in ensuring the sustainability of outreach activities in the event that the ICC’s mandate comes to an end. For example, prior to the capture of Ongwen in 2015, the ICC was in the process of scaling down its operations in Uganda and moving its offices to Nairobi. As part of its exit strategy, the ICC was relying on CSOs to continue conducting outreach in northern Uganda. With the LRA still at large in the Central Africa Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, there will be need for outreach in Uganda even after Ongwen’s trial is concluded. CSOs can help step in to fill the vacuum created by the departure of the ICC.

The involvement of CSOs in outreach, however, also presents certain challenges. In the first instance, there is the risk of CSOs being perceived as doing the ICC’s work. In other words, the involvement of CSOs could create less pressure for the court to fulfill its obligations in undertaking outreach activities. Additionally, with the hostile climate towards the ICC in some African countries, it can be dangerous to be seen as affiliated with the court. Each CSO therefore needs to make an assessment about how it undertakes its activities in light of this, if they are concerned about maintaining their independence. This is a matter not to be taken lightly.

Another challenge could relate to ensuring that there is harmonization of information. This is because if outreach is being conducted by many stakeholders, then it is likely that information disseminated may not be uniform. In addition, sometimes there are messages that the ICC needs to deliver itself, while sometimes CSOs and community members may want to “detach” themselves from certain messages so that there’s no perception that they agree or support a certain development or decision. In relation to this, CSOs may want to take positions on certain matters and that may be incompatible with neutral outreach activities. Finally, in some contexts, CSOs may contribute to raising expectations rather than managing them.

The above challenges point to the fact that while the ICC may need to work closely in collaboration with CSOs to ensure that outreach is well coordinated and achieves the intended impact, it must also at times respect the independent nature of CSOs. However, as demonstrated above, CSOs in in northern Uganda could play a role in outreach activities and the benefits of involving them in can outweigh the challenges. With the start of Ongwen’s trial looming closer, CSOs will be vital in ensuring that there is comprehensive outreach.

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. The opinions expressed above do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Society Justice Initiative.