Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is currently on trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC). He is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the former internally displaced persons (IDP) camps of Lukodi, Odek, Abok, and Pajule. His trial, which started on December 6, 2016, is progressing steadily, with the prosecution currently making submissions.
As the trial continues, many people continue to remain divided on whether Ongwen should stand trial and be punished on the one hand, or whether he should be forgiven and acquitted on the other hand. This article presents perspectives from both sides.
The ICC has been involved in Uganda since 2004 when a referral was first made by the Ugandan government. The ICC’s involvement came at a time when the conflict between the government and LRA was at its peak, and an amnesty program was being promoted to encourage LRA combatants to abandon the rebellion. The amnesty program was successful, encouraging over 10,000 LRA combatants to stop fighting. Many people readily embraced the culture of forgiveness because of sensitization campaigns that promoted it as the best option to ending the conflict. It is therefore the reason why almost 10 years since the return of relative peace to northern many people continue to call for Ongwen to be forgiven.
Innocent, a civil society organization (CSO) representative said, “Dominic Ongwen should be given amnesty. This man was abducted when he was a very young boy so whatever he did was not his own initiative, but there was a force behind him. Much as people say he continued doing this even when he was at an age of maturity but still he was under somebody’s control, and so he should be given amnesty. I don’t think Ongwen would have continued to do harm if it was his own will.”
The proponents of forgiveness cite various reasons ranging from Ongwen’s abduction as a child to the fact that he cannot be blamed for all what happened in northern Uganda.
Rosalba Oywa, a long time peace activist in northern Uganda pointed out, “I think he should not be tried because he was abducted as a child and as a child he might have been manipulated to do all sorts of things. If it was in my power, I wouldn’t allow that he be tried. I would find a way to rehabilitate him and see if he could forget the violent behavior he learnt from the bush and become a good citizen.”
Bishop Macleod Baker Ochola, another long-time peace activist in northern Uganda supported Oywa’s position. “I say he should not be tried by the ICC because he is a victim of circumstances who was abducted on his way to school and subjected to whatever treatment and condition of killing and doing a lot of bad things. As a result his humanity was completely destroyed and so the community cannot turn around and say he should be accountable and responsible for what he did. The people who should be accountable or the organization that should be tried should be the LRA but not Ongwen.”
Some people recommended that Ongwen’s dual status as a victim and perpetrator should be taken into consideration during sentencing in the event that he is found guilty by the court.
“Now that things have happened in the way we didn’t wish [the trial instead of amnesty] we just pray that justice prevails because he is both a victim and a perpetrator, and that is why we need a final judgment that will recognize this status,” said Oywa.
More perspectives on forgiveness can be accessed from previous blog articles published by International Justice Monitor.
Since the return of relative peace in northern Uganda, many people have come out to speak in favor of prosecution. Those who preferred accountability over amnesty, advanced various reasons as follows.
Many people frequently mentioned the trial as an avenue for Ongwen to prove his innocence or guilt. They frequently used the phrase “let justice prevail” to express the value of the trial to both victims of the conflict and Ongwen himself.
Hellen Acham, a CSO representative said, “I would say if we want justice to prevail then let Ongwen be tried and let justice prevail because the trial does not mean conviction, but if we are people who are looking for justice, the trial is the best way for him to prove his innocence or guilt.”
Francis Odongyoo, another CSO representative said, “I think it is a good idea to try him because it will remove the public suspicion against him and grant him safety and protection. It will justify his innocence or guilt and will protect him.”
Many people were also quick to point out that Ongwen could not use his ignorance of the law as a defense for the crimes he committed.
As Acham pointed out, “We have a saying that ignorance [of the law] is no defense regardless of how the crimes were committed. He can justify himself in court as to why he did what he did. He can say he could have been pushed to do it or harassed to do. So let him be tried and let justice prevail. I think what we really want is the truth.”
In the opinion of many people, there would be dire consequences if Ongwen was released without a trial.
Joyce, a CSO representative working with Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative (WPDI) said, “Given what he did in northern Uganda, his background is not very good and so the people who have been victims of his actions may not let him go free even if he is acquitted, so I think he should be tried so as to be on the safer side. My fear is that if Ongwen is left to come out free, people will lose the trust they have in the international justice system.”
In addition, many people also pointed out that his abduction could not be used as a ground for acquittal, reasoning that he should have abandoned the rebellion when he came of age.
“Much as we know Ongwen was abducted as any other child when he was young but at least when he started to identify what was wrong he would have surrendered as a commander instead of continuing to do harm to his people, and so on that note I strongly suggest that he be tried,” said Acham.
Furthermore, some people pointed out that the trial would act as a motivation for other LRA combatants to abandon rebellion. James Engemu, a CSO representative working for Obalanga Human Rights and Health Care Association (OHRHCA) said, “For Ongwen to be in court will induce other rebel leaders to come out knowing that when you are out of the bush and taken to court you are not killed.”
Others thought the trial would also help to reduce tension between Ongwen and his alleged victims.
“It will also help safeguard the family of the victim, and it will also reduce tension and of course you know justice is not a one day thing so his trial will give the victims a chance to follow court proceedings and see that at least an effort is being made to hold someone accountable,” added Engemu.
Focus on Victims, Instead
Other people chose to take a neutral stance regarding whether or not Ongwen should be tried, pointing out that the most important factor was the welfare of the victims.
“For me at the moment what is important is not him being tried but the welfare of the victims who have suffered. Will Ongwen’s trial put food on the table for those who have suffered from the war? Victims have needs that have to be addressed like physical rehabilitation, psychosocial rehabilitation, reparations, and material support. If all these things are done it will restore their dignity and promote peace in the region,” said Pamela Angwec, a CSO representative in northern Uganda.
Angwec also thought that the most important thing was to promote reconciliation between Ongwen and his victims other than trying him.
“There are people who say ‘let Ongwen come to our village and apologize for what he has done and say he is truly sorry’ and I tell you people are willing to forgive him and embrace him back home. Because what people are missing is the face-to-face conversation with Ongwen and hearing him say he is sorry will bring real healing to people. This is the beginning of the healing process. Reconciliation is more important than legal redress,” added Angwec.
The above opinions demonstrate that as the trial of Ongwen progresses, the general public in Uganda, including victims and affected communities will continue to remain divided on whether or not he should be pardoned or punished. It is also an indicator that at the conclusion of his trial, the outcome is likely to generate further debate on whether justice has been served or not.
Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda since 2006. He is also the 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.