Calls for Reparations and a Speedy Trial Prevail as ICC President Visits Northern Uganda

 “The coming of the ICC President brings hope to the people of Lukodi. The court should also fasten the justice process because people have waited for too long.” Gibson Okullu, community leader from Lukodi

From February 23 to March 1, the President of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Judge Silvia Fernández de Gurmendi, visited Uganda to see first-hand the activities of the ICC Trust Fund for Victims (TFV or Trust Fund) that support victims under its assistance mandate. President Fernández also used the mission as an opportunity to generate awareness and support for the Rome Statute of the ICC.

The above quote was part of the remarks made by Gibson Okullu, the local council chairperson for Lukodi, as he welcomed President Fernández to the village. She visited Lukodi on February 27 to meet with community members.

Lukodi was the scene of a massacre perpetrated by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) on May 19, 2004. Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the LRA is currently on trial before the ICC and is accused of leading the attack that resulted in the death of over 69 people. Lukodi is significant in Ongwen’s trial because it featured in the original seven charges of  the ICC’s initial arrest warrant from July 2005, which included three counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes, including murder and enslavement, all related to the attack carried out on the Lukodi. (Those charges were expanded in 2015 to the 70 Ongwen is currently facing at trial.)

President Fernández  was accompanied by a delegation from the TFV. They included: Motoo Noguchi, chair of the board of directors; Mama Koite Doumbia, member of the board of directors; Pieter de Baan, executive director of the Trust Fund; Scott Bartell, the regional program manager; Jelena Vukasinovic, the chief of the ICC field office in Uganda, and Philipp Ambach, the chief of Victims Participation and Reparations Section in the ICC Registry. Archbishop John Baptist Odama, Bishop Nelson Onono, and representatives of civil society organizations based in Gulu also participated in the events around the visit.

Upon her arrive in Lukodi, President Fernández immediately began to engage in interactions with community members of Lukodi. In this forum – commonly known as a community dialogue – approximately 500 community members were in attendance. President Fernández and her delegation were introduced to the community and given an opportunity to address them. After her remarks, she engaged in a question and answer session, where residents where given the opportunity to make comments or ask questions directly to her and other ICC officials present. There were three rounds of questions in which approximately 13 people interacted with the ICC President.

With the visit coming only a few months after the start of Ongwen’s trial in The Hague, it was not surprising that questions on reparations and the speed at which the trial was progressing dominated the dialogue.

Okullu, the local council chairperson, was vocal in expressing that victims were not happy with the slow pace of the trial. In his words, “People who survived the Lukodi massacre are not happy that the trial is taking long. This case should be decided quickly so that victims get help from the court. Survivors need rehabilitation because they are facing many challenges.”

Justin, another resident of Lukodi, agreed, saying, “Victims are dying as they wait because they have no one to take care of them.”

Another community member noted that “the proceedings are taking too long and people have a life span; what if we all die? If Ongwen is found not guilty, what will happen?”

In explaining the slow pace of hearings, President Fernández said that trials take time. “The trial of Ongwen is being handled in a very careful and effective manner. It is true that people have been patient enough, and the court acknowledges the fact that justice is long overdue. However, the proceedings are going on in a very fair manner,” she explained.

Several community members also asked questions relating to reparations and assistance for victims. Two of the respondents who were given an opportunity to ask questions said they were hearing about the Trust Fund for Victims for the first time.

One community member asked, “What form of reparation will be given, and how will it be handled in case of a guilty verdict?”

Another added, “People in Lukodi are hearing about Trust Fund for the first time. Why is that so?”

Another asked, “How is mobilization to identify beneficiaries for the Trust Fund done since people in some locations are not being reached?”

A female community member present noted that “for child mothers there has been no specific programs [by the Trust Fund] to address our challenges how can the court help?”

An elderly community member suggested that the Trust Fund redesigns its programs to include different forms of assistance. “What victims are getting from Trust Fund is not enough to cater for our needs. Is there a way of redirecting the funds to other areas, like education? This is because some of us who are old cannot support our children in school,” he said.

While responding to these questions, President Fernández was quick to remind the victims that Ongwen was yet to be proven guilty and that reparations could only be implemented if he was found guilty. “If Ongwen is convicted, victims will receive reparations. The Trust Fund will implement that, but it is going to be a modest compensation given the fact that victims are very many. However, [the] court commits to do its best within the available resources,” she said.

Officials of the Trust Fund who were present at the meeting revealed that a total of €3.148 million had been injected in rehabilitation programs for northern Uganda. As Motoo Noguchi revealed, “Approximately 45,000 victims have benefitted from the Trust Fund for Victims in the last eight years since the ICC started channelling funds to war victims in Uganda. The funds were used in vocational skills training, physical, and psychosocial rehabilitation, support to livelihood programs and medical operations of those with bullet wounds and shrapnel in their bodies.”

However, the officials were not specific on how much of this money had directly benefitted residents of Lukodi.

In response to community members’ lack of awareness about the Trust Fund, Scott Bartell noted that, “The Trust Fund has always been there, but the challenge is that there are many victims. The purpose of our visit today is to directly learn from the community what their needs are and how the Trust Fund can help.”

Other issues raised by community members included: an inquiry to know how victims could participate in proceedings; a question on when the trial would end; a question on why certain sections of the hearing were held in closed session; and a question on what the court would do about the fact that Ongwen was abducted as a child.

On victim participation, President Fernández noted that victims could participate in court proceedings through their legal representatives. On the question regarding the duration of the trial, she told victims it was difficult to predcit when the trial would end. To the question about closed hearings, she responded that for security reasons the judges could decide to close some sessions to the public.

The community dialogue between residents of Lukodi and President Fernández lasted approximately two hours. Thereafter, accompanied by Archbishop Odama and Bishop Nelson, she laid a wreath on a memorial built in memory of the victims who lost their lives.

As part of her concluding remarks, President Fernández assured the victims that the court would do its best to ensure that justice prevailed, stating, “Such acts cannot go unpunished. We shall see that justice prevails. That is why the ICC was created.”

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.