Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) currently awaits trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. He has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity that allegedly occurred during the conflict between the LRA and government of Uganda from 2003 to 2005. After many months of preparation, opening statements by the prosecution, defense, and victims’ lawyers are due to begin on December 6, 2016.
Before and after his arrest in 2015, the ICC field office in Uganda and civil society organizations working on peace building in northern Uganda were engaged in conducting community outreach, with the aim of sensitizing the people about the work of the ICC.
An outreach session involves reaching out to local communities through in-person visits or through mass media, such as radio. The in-person visits are the most dynamic because they involve a face–to-face interaction with the community and time is often not restricted, compared to a radio talk show for instance. Participation at these events is voluntary, and community members are often given the chance to ask questions.
I have lived and worked as a peace-building practitioner and researcher in northern Uganda since 2006. Through my work, I have traveled all over northern Uganda, documenting stories and experiences of communities affected by conflict and interacting with victims and survivors of violence. After Ongwen’s arrest in 2015, I have had the opportunity to participate in various community events and outreach sessions connected to his case. Based on my recollection of these events and personal and official records, I have compiled a list of the most common questions asked by community members in regard to the trial of Ongwen and the functioning of the ICC. The sample questions included below were compiled from community outreach sessions and community events in the communities of Lukodi, Atiak, Amuru, Barlonyo, Pabo-Kal, Gaya, Palwong, Pogo, Odek, Pajule, and Abok. More questions and views were also collected during workshops and meetings in Gulu town and during radio talk shows broadcast all over northern Uganda. The questions were collected from January to October 2016.
Hundreds of questions were recorded, but as many of the questions were repetitive, I have only selected the most relevant ones. I have also attempted to categorize the questions as outlined below.
Investigation and Charges against Ongwen
Some of the most common questions asked by community members were questions relating to the evidence gathering process. In particular, individuals wanted to understand the charges levelled against Ongwen and the investigative process in general. These included questions like:
- How did the ICC investigators gather all the evidence that is being used against Ongwen?
- Were the ICC investigators present during the fighting to record everything that was happening in northern Uganda and to gather evidence?
- How could there exist so many charges against one single individual?
- Why did the ICC Prosecutor bring additional charges against Ongwen; is this not a sign that the prosecutor is biased?
- Did anyone living in northern Uganda go to the ICC to complain against Ongwen?
- Why is Ongwen’s defense lawyer contesting the charges against him; is he trying to say that Ongwen did not commit any crimes?
With these questions many community members are trying to understand exactly how evidence against Ongwen was gathered. In the Acholi traditional justice system, and in the culture of many tribes in northern Uganda, witnesses often have to rely on what they have actually seen and not what they have heard from a third party. Hence, many community members were interested in learning how the ICC had conducted its investigation.
Another set of questions that was commonly asked were questions relating to the geographical scope of the case. They asked:
- How did those communities get selected while it is a known fact that Ongwen and the LRA operated all over northern Uganda?
- Are victims in the four communities different from victims in other communities?
Ongwen is currently accused of having committed crimes in the communities of Lukodi, Abok, Pajule, and Odek. These questions, however, indicate that many victims in northern Uganda feel the scope of Ongwen’s crimes should have been wider in order to allow as many victims as possible to participate in the trial.
Reparation and Victim Participation
Community members also asked questions relating to reparations. They asked:
- How will victims be paid?
- What will happen if Ongwen wins the case? Will victims still be paid?
- Who will be responsible for paying reparations?
- If a victim dies before the time for effecting reparations comes, then who will receive reparations on their behalf?
- Who are the victims who will be paid if Ongwen loses the case?
With these questions, community members are interested in knowing what they are entitled to in regard to reparations. Community members are also often interested in knowing how they can register to participate in a reparations program.
Connected to the above, some community members also had questions relating to victims’ participation. Many individuals have repeatedly asked if they can be allowed to participate physically in The Hague and attend hearings. Community members also wanted to understand why the ICC cannot hold proceedings in Uganda where the community can all see what is happening. These inquiries are indicative of the fact that many community members are interested in participating in the case of Ongwen and would like to learn how they can be engaged with the trial process.
A Potential Acquittal
Another frequent set of questions community members asked about is what happens at the conclusion of Ongwen’s trial. They wanted to know, among other things:
- Where will Ongwen live in case he is acquitted by the court?
- If he comes back to live in the community, will his presence not breed hatred among his victims?
- If Ongwen is found to be innocent, what will happen to the witnesses who have testified against him?
Even though the end of the trial could be years away, community members are trying to prepare for the future and what could happen in the event that Ongwen is acquitted. Many of them believe it is a possibility that Ongwen can be acquitted and that is why they wonder what will become of the witnesses or where he will live in the event that he returns to Uganda.
Another set of questions commonly asked relate to other perpetrators of the northern Uganda conflict. Community members asked:
- Why is Ongwen the only one who is being charged before the ICC?
- Why have other LRA commanders not been charged and yet Ongwen was junior to them?
- Why has the ICC not charged anyone from the Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF)?
- Why has Ongwen not been granted amnesty like many other LRA fighters who came out before him?
These questions reflect the views of many people in northern Uganda who continue to hold the belief that both the government and the LRA should be held responsible for the conflict in northern Uganda. Therefore, Ongwen alone should not be held accountable for what happened during the conflict.
Closely connected to the above, community members also asked questions relating to forgiveness and Ongwen’s dual victim-perpetrator role. In particular, they wanted to know how the ICC can go ahead with its prosecution when community members have forgiven Ongwen. These questions reflect the views of many community members who still believe that Ongwen, as a victim who was abducted at a young age, deserves to be forgiven or granted amnesty.
Community members were also curious about how the ICC as an institution operates. They asked questions relating to the functioning of the ICC and the upcoming trial, such as:
- Where does the ICC get its funding?
- Does the ICC have an army of its own?
- Why do we see few African lawyers at the ICC?
- Why is Ongwen being tried in The Hague and not in Uganda?
- Where is Ongwen getting the money to pay his lawyers?
The above questions are highly indicative of the deep interest that communities have about the process of justice and how the ICC functions. Ever since the ICC intervened in Uganda, communities have been interested in knowing more about the court, and as a result they have repeatedly asked questions such as the ones listed above. These types of questions will likely increase once Ongwen’s trial begins in December, and providing accurate and timely responses will be necessary for local support of the ICC to continue. It will therefore be important for the court to continue to engage with local communities in northern Uganda through various types of 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.