On December 6, 2016, the trial of Dominic Ongwen opened before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, the Netherlands. Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in northern Uganda while in the service of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
A number of people, including academics, journalists, representatives of civil society organizations, and even Ugandans living in the Netherlands turned up at the ICC headquarters in The Hague to witness the opening of the trial. Among the people who traveled to witness the opening of the trial was a delegation of 10 Ugandans, who were sponsored by the ICC field office in Uganda, with funding from the Danish Embassy. The delegation was led by the Paramount Chief of Acholi, Rwot David Onen Acana, and included representatives from the communities of Lukodi, Pajule, Abok, and Odek.
Unbeknownst to many of the people present in the courtroom, thousands of people in Uganda were also following the event through live broadcasts facilitated by the ICC field office. Public screening events were organized in seven locations, including six in northern Uganda and one in the country’s capital, Kampala. The centers were set up at Hotel Africana in Kampala, Gulu Senior Secondary School in Gulu town, and the four communities of Lukodi, Odek, Pajule, and Abok. The ICC field office also organized a live screening event in Coorom, where Ongwen originates from.
According to statistics provided by the ICC field office, over 13,000 people turned up at the viewing centers to follow the opening of Ongwen’s trial. This is the highest attendance rate in the history of the ICC in Uganda. Maria Mabinty Kamara, the ICC head of outreach for Kenya and Uganda, noted: “The screenings were quite successful. There was immense enthusiasm among victims and members of the affected communities, and the general public at large which was reflected in the large turnout of thousands of victims and other interest groups at the respective viewing centers. The proximity of the centers attracted huge numbers during the two days of the opening of the trial. The broadcast of the trial in Acholi language by two local radio stations also attracted a large listenership, bringing the process closer to the affected populations.”
The ICC Registrar, Herman von Hebel, also visited Uganda in the wake of the opening of the trial and was highly impressed by the enthusiasm displayed by the community members who turned up for the screening. While attending a community screening event in Abok, he noted that that “through victims’ participation and reparations, we [the ICC] promote healing and help rebuild communities. The most serious crimes must not remain unpunished.” He, however, called upon the victims to be patient as they awaited the outcome of the trial. In a statement to the media during his visit, von Hebel noted that “the process of the court [ICC] is complicated. The role of the prosecutor, the defense and the victims to participate through their defense counsel is also a complicated process.”
In one particular reaction to the community screenings, a community member from Lukodi noted that, “What I am seeing today with Ongwen appearing before the court for trial has built trust in me that the justice talked about over many years ago is being delivered now to us…I am happy about what I saw.”
In order to make the community screening events successful, the ICC field office worked with a number of stakeholders and civil society organizations in Uganda to conduct the live screenings. The organizations include: the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), Pathways to Peace, Crossroads Resilience Initiative (CRI), Center for Reparations and Rehabilitation (CRR), Gulu Women Global Empowerment for Development (GWED), and Youth Movers Uganda, among others. These partnerships produced fruitful results as seen from the numbers of people who turned up for the viewing.
In Kampala, where the ICC field office partnered with ICTJ to conduct the live screening at Hotel Africana, 75 people turned up to participate. In Gulu Town, the ICC field office partnered with Crossroads Resilience Initiative to conduct the screening at Gulu Senior Secondary School and 1,430 people attended.
In Lukodi, the ICC partnered with the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives, Pathways to Peace, Youth Movers Uganda, and Uganda Women’s Action Program, and over 1,500 people turned up. In Odek over 1,636 people responded to the ICC’s invitation, while in Pajule over 1,344 people attended the viewing. In Abok, a record 5,960 people turned up, making it the community that registered the highest attendance rate.
As noted above, the ICC field office also conducted the live screening in Coorom village where Ongwen originates from with the intention of providing his relatives with an opportunity to follow the proceedings. In Coorom, over 1,100 people turned up to watch the opening statements.
The ICC’s move to screen the opening of the trial in Coorom, however, left some in other communities puzzled, as they did not understand the significance of screening the proceedings to the relatives of the man they considered to be their perpetrator. As one community member from Lukodi said, “I have heard that the screening is also going on at Coorom where Dominic Ongwen comes from. In my view, there would be no need to have another screening center there because the LRA did not attack Coorom. The ICC is wasting money there, which should be used to pay the school fees of orphans whose parents were killed during the Lukodi attack by LRA.”
In all community locations, the ICC ensured that there were counselors in place to provide psychosocial support and therapy in the event that some the participants were overwhelmed by the images they were viewing. Some CSOs volunteered to provide these counseling services.
To ensure that participants were able to follow the proceeding in a language they understood, the ICC field office also partnered with two local radio stations (Mega FM Radio and Gulu FM Radio), which broadcast the proceedings in Acholi language. The radio stations virtually provided a translation of what the community members were viewing on TV screens from The Hague.
The high turnout by participants is not only proof of the high level of interest that victims have in following the trial, but also an indicator that the ICC field office in Uganda has done its work well in as far as sensitizing the victims and building community interest in the case concerned.
The enthusiasm and high level of interest exhibited by the victims has been overwhelming so far, but the real work remains in the weeks and months ahead. As the trial continues throughout the year, the court, working in partnership with other organizations, will have find more ways to keep communities in northern Uganda informed of and engaged with this historic trial.
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.