An ‘Opportunity of a Lifetime’ for Community Leaders from Northern Uganda

On December 6, the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) started in The Hague. Ongwen is accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in former internally displaced persons’ camps of Odek, Lukodi, Pajule, and Abok, in northern Uganda. Ongwen has been in detention since January 2016 when he surrendered to the Séléka rebels in the Central Africa Republic and was transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to await trial.

To bolster victim participation, the ICC field office, with support from the Danish Embassy in Uganda, mobilized and sponsored a delegation of ten community representatives to attend the opening of Ongwen’s trial.

The delegation was led by His Highness Rwot David Onen Acana, the Paramount Chief of Acholi; accompanied by Archbishop John Baptist Odama, the Archbishop of Gulu Archdiocese; Bishop Nelson Onono Onweng, the retired Bishop of the Diocese of Northern Uganda; Ambrose Oola, the Prime Minister of Ker Kwaro Acholi; and myself as the founder and director of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a non-governmental organization based in northern Uganda.

Among the delegation also were five community representatives from Lukodi, Pajule, Abok, and Odek.

As part of the visit, the participants not only had the opportunity to witness the commencement of Ongwen’s trial at the court’s new premises, but also met and exchanged ideas with representatives of the ICC. Meetings were held with the Presidency and Judicial Division, the Office of the Prosecutor, the Registry, as well as the parties and participants involved in the trial of Ongwen.

In a statement issued while in The Hague, the delegation noted that “the case of Dominic Ongwen remains very important to us because it is a milestone in defining one way in the attempt to secure justice and accountability for the people of Northern Uganda, and ultimately to help people reconcile with their past and move towards peace.”

Many people in northern Uganda have on several occasions expressed the importance of ensuring that victims follow proceedings as an important aspect of victim participation. The ICC is the first international criminal justice court in history to allow victims to share their views and concerns during all stages of the proceedings through their legal representatives, which is enshrined in both the Rome Statute and Rules of Procedure and Evidence. It was therefore not surprising when all the community representatives were unanimous in expressing their joy at being able to travel to The Hague for this important occasion.

As Esther, from Pajule noted, “I am privileged to have travelled and confirmed with my own eyes that the ICC in fact exists. I saw Ongwen in the court, and this means we have not been told lies about his trial. Even if not all people were able to come, they have at least been represented by us.”

As Justin from Lukodi community said, “We were able to see Ongwen in the court. We saw that he was well dressed and he was treated with respect. The court also gave him time to speak.”

Patrick, a community representative from Odek said, “When I heard that few people had been selected I could not believe it. We saw Ongwen with our eyes even if we did not touch him. We saw the lawyers and interacted with them. This is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

As a result of various meetings held with different sections of the ICC, the participants were also able to get a better understanding of how the court functions, a factor that was also instrumental in increasing their understanding appreciation of the trial process. As Esther from Pajule said, “We were happy to hear about how the court works and how victims and witnesses are protected. This gives us confidence that our relatives who are participating will be protected.”

Justin from Lukodi agreed with the above opinion, noting that, “The functioning of the court was made clear to us. We toured the court and met with various representatives. This made us to believe that there is transparency at the ICC.”

The community representatives were also immensely impressed by the new structure that houses the ICC premises. Although many of the participants were overwhelmed by the security protocols in place, they thought the facilities contained in the building were excellent, including the courtroom and office spaces. As Justin from Lukodi said, “The setup of the court is very good. The courtroom is set in such a way that visitors can follow proceedings without interfering with the work of the judges and lawyers. This is not the case in Uganda where someone from the audience can easily reach the judges and lawyers and even attack them.  The equipment being used is also very good, and we do not have this in Uganda.”

In addition to the delegation from Uganda, there were many other visitors also present in the public gallery for the first day of the hearing, including many students, journalists, and researchers. This is a matter that did not go down well with one of the community representatives from Abok who said, “Students and journalists were the majority in the court. This makes us to think that the court is being taken as a learning opportunity. There should have been more community and victims’ representatives.”

Over the course of two days, the community representatives attended the court sessions and watched as the prosecution team made its opening remarks. Some of the representatives later remarked that the gruesome pictures of the killings in their communities that were displayed by the prosecution evoked strong memories in them. In a comment that did not go well over with Archbishop Odama and Bishop Onono, Francisco Cox, one of the victims representatives, noted in his opening remarks that “[i]t is usually people that did not suffer consequences of Ongwen’s crimes that ask for forgiveness.” Otherwise all the community representatives felt that the hearing had gone well.

It can be concluded that the initiative by the ICC field office and Danish Embassy in Uganda achieved its intended impact of promoting community participation and increased the community representatives’ understanding and appreciation of the ICC. Furthermore, community representatives will be expected to engage in public outreach and share their experiences back home.  However, as noted by one participant, to increase impact the court should consider bringing a larger delegation of people living in communities affected by the alleged crimes of the accused.

Ongwen’s trial resumes on January 16, 2017. International Justice Monitor will be following the trial, and regular updates will be posted to the LRA Trials page.

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.