As the trial of Dominic Ongwen continues at the International Criminal Court (ICC), questions on how victims and conflict-affected communities stand to benefit from the whole process continues to generate discussion. A key issue often raised by victims is the lack of support from the Ugandan government to victims of the conflict, which pitted the government itself against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
This is an issue that has left many feeling that the government is leaving the ICC and other stakeholders to shoulder the entire burden. With the ICC promising to effect reparations for victims in the event of a conviction, it can be argued that Ongwen’s trial has reopened the debate on reparations and assistance for victims in northern Uganda.
Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in attacks on camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. The attacks took place between 2003 and 2004 in the camps of Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi. He has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes, including the crime of forced marriage.
Over 4,000 victims have registered for participation, a factor that will enable the ICC to order individual and community reparations at the conclusion of the trial, if Ongwen is found guilty on any of the charges. The ICC’s efforts raise questions on what the Ugandan government has done in comparison.
One community member from Odek said, “The ICC has helped in drawing attention to the issue of justice for the crimes we suffered. We are following the trial of Ongwen, and if the case concludes then maybe some victims will be compensated. For the government, apart from bringing back peace in the region, we have not seen much support going to victims.”
The Ugandan government’s efforts to develop and implement a reparations program for victims of the northern Uganda conflict can be traced back to the Juba Peace Talks, which began in 2006. At these talks, debates on reparations and transitional justice took center stage and continued until 2008 when the LRA relocated to the Central Africa Republic. The debates continued, albeit at a slower pace, when the Ugandan government began drafting a transitional justice policy, which among other things contained provisions for effecting reparations to victims of conflict. The government also formed a national transitional justice working group to coordinate transitional justice matters in the country. These debates, however, fizzled out when the said transitional justice policy was not forthcoming, and the government did not make any moves to implement the resolutions regarding reparations from the Juba Peace Talks.
However, with the capture of Ongwen in 2015 and the start of his trial in 2016, debates on reparations have returned in full force. As one community member from Lukodi asked during a community dialogue, “What does the government think about the mass massacres that took place during the conflict in northern Uganda? Does the government sympathize with the victims? We see a lot of discussion taking place on the internet regarding massacres in northern Uganda, but the government hardly comments. Does the government really care about us?”
Another community member said, “Why is the government calling the ICC a bunch of useless people and yet it referred the case of Ongwen to the very institution it is calling useless? What is the government doing to compensate us for our suffering? At least the ICC is moving on with the case of Ongwen.”
To compound matters, victims in northern Uganda feel that the government has often implemented reparations in a selective and haphazard manner. One of the examples frequently cited is the government’s compensation of the victims of the 2010 Kampala bombings. In July 2010, Al Shabaab, a Somali militant group, detonated bombs in Kampala, killing over 70 people. The militants allegedly carried out the bombing as punishment against Uganda for its role in leading the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) in Mogadishu. A day after the incident, Uganda’s president visited the scene of the attack and declared a week of mourning. The government also quickly provided compensation for the victims by paying a lump sum amount of 5 million Ugandan shillings (approximately US $1,400) for each of the deceased persons and 3 million Ugandan shillings (approximately US $850) for those who survived with injuries.
In reference to this compensation initiative by the government, one community member from Lukodi asked, “What is the difference between the victims of Lukodi and the victims of the Al Shabaab bombings? What is the difference between the lives that were lost in Lukodi and those that were lost in Kampala? Are we less valuable than the victims who lost their lives in Kampala?”
Victims have also complained about how the government has recognized and assisted victims in some locations within northern Uganda, while ignoring victims of Ongwen’s crimes in their locations. One of the examples mentioned was the compensation made by the government to victims of the Mukura Massacre in 2011, where each victim received 5 million Ugandan shillings. Another example frequently cited was a cash contribution of 50 million Ugandan shillings (approximately US $14,000) that Uganda’s president made to victims of the Atiak massacre in 2013.
One community member from Lukodi said:
We have seen the president going to visit victims in other places, such as Atiak and Barlonyo, and giving them money. We wonder if the blood of victims in Lukodi is different from the blood of victims in those other places. We would like to ask our leaders to also invite the president to make an official visit to Lukodi and listen to the concerns of the massacre survivors, just as he has visited the victims of the Atiak and Barlonyo massacres.
Another community member from Odek said, “On several occasions, we have requested the President of Uganda to come here and listen to our concerns, but he has never even sent a representative. We request that our leaders and other government officials forward our request so that the president makes a visit to Lukodi.”
The above examples contribute to the reason why many community members have put so much hope in the trial of Ongwen. In their opinion, nothing has been forthcoming from the government to support victims that have been impacted by the violence allegedly perpetrated by Ongwen. As one community member from Odek explained:
At least the ICC has come on the ground and collected evidence for the Ongwen case. They have also registered victims. This gives us hope that when the case is concluded we shall get something. Perhaps the government’s biggest contribution is that it has given the ICC permission to do its work, but aside from that we have not seen anything they have done for victims. It was the government that failed to protect by providing few soldiers to guard the camp, and this led to many people losing their lives when the LRA attacked. So the government should also do something.
The United Nations guidelines on the right to a remedy and reparation emphasizes the duty of states to make available adequate, effective, prompt, and appropriate remedies, including reparation, for victims of gross human rights violations. This implies that while the ICC may in the future implement a reparations program for Ongwen’s victims, the government of Uganda still bears the primary responsibility for making reparations to its own citizens. The ICC has already registered thousands victims to participate in the Ongwen case. It now remains to be seen whether the expectations of these victims regarding reparations will be met at the conclusion of Ongwen’s trial and if such reparations will make victims forget the government’s obligations to them.
Lino Owor Ogora is peacebuilding practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in Uganda since 2006. He is the founder of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a local NGO based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women and communities to promote justice, development and economic recovery in northern Uganda.