July 17 is globally recognized as the “World Day for International Justice,” also referred to as the “Day of International Criminal Justice” or “International Justice Day.” The day is commemorated around the world as part of an effort to recognize the emerging system of international criminal justice and to mark the anniversary of the adoption of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Since the ICC intervened in the Ugandan situation 13 years ago, International Justice Day in Uganda has revolved around activities of the court. With the trial of Dominic Ongwen currently ongoing before the ICC, it is not surprising that this year’s commemoration focused the Ongwen case.
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. He has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes, including the crime of forced marriage. This article recounts the celebrations held in Uganda to mark International Justice Day and questions that were asked following a public screening of the Ongwen trial conducted by the ICC in Gulu.
In Uganda’s capital Kampala, the ICC launched an “Access to Justice” project in collaboration with the Danish Embassy in Uganda. The project is aimed at facilitating the ICC’s continuous efforts to respond to the information demands of the communities affected by the conflict in northern Uganda. The major highlight of the project was the donation of television screens and radios to 23 communities in northern Uganda that will enhance the capacity of the local population in northern Uganda to follow the proceedings against Ongwen. The project will also strengthen capacity of the religious and cultural leaders to further engage the members of their respective communities on issues related to the court.
In Gulu district in northern Uganda, July 17 was marked by a public town hall screening of past court sessions of Ongwen’s trial. The screening was conducted in both English and Acholi languages and attracted several members of the public. After the screening, community members were given an opportunity to ask questions regarding the case.
There were many basic questions asked about the functioning of the ICC by participants. Examples included: does the ICC have soldiers of its own and why there were no black judges sitting on the bench of the trial of Ongwen trial?
The ICC representative fielding questions explained that the ICC has no military force and relies on the member countries to effect arrests. In response to the question on judges, the representative explained that ICC judges are elected from all over the world and stressed that they are elected based on their qualifications and experience, not their skin color or nationality.
Questions were also sparked by what community members heard and saw during the screening. One participant remarked that he heard a voice similar to LRA leader Joseph Kony’s speaking in Langi language, appreciating Ongwen for being a good fighter. The participant asked how it was possible that Kony could speak Langi, yet he was an Acholi by tribe. The ICC representative clarified that the audio heard in the video was only from witnesses who appeared before the court. The ICC representative also informed the gathering that most of the witnesses who have testified to date were former LRA rebels who had served under the leadership of Ongwen.
The video footage also showed LRA soldiers putting on new army uniforms, so another participant asked to know where the LRA fighters received their supplies of army uniforms. The ICC representative responded that this was a matter for the court to determine during hearings if deemed relevant.
Many questions arose about prosecution and trial strategy. One participant asked why the court charged Ongwen with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The participant felt that the huge number of counts made it appear as though Ongwen was being made to shoulder the burden for all the crimes committed by the LRA. The court representative explained that Ongwen was being tried for attacks that happened in four IDP camps and that the charges were commensurate given the high level of atrocities committed during the attacks and the large number of civilians who died in the process.
Another participant asked to know what strategies the prosecution and defense were using to choose witnesses to testify in the trial. The ICC representative responded that the decision on what type of witness to call was entirely at the discretion of the prosecution and defense counsel depending on the type of information they were looking for.
One person asked why the ICC had not waited for Kony and other commanders to be arrested before commencing the trial of Ongwen. The participant reasoned that because the arrest warrants for the five top LRA commanders were all issued at the same time, they should have been tried at the same time. The ICC representative responded that the court could not wait until all rebel leaders had been arrested and had to try Ongwen separately in order to expedite the trial in accordance with international fair trial standards.
The ICC investigation also appears one-sided to some. In particular, one participant asked why the ICC had failed to prosecute individuals from the government of Uganda who fought against the LRA. The ICC representative responded that the ICC had not failed to prosecute the government for crimes committed by its soldiers, but it lacked proof and evidence required to make a case under law.
Community members were also interested to know more about the rights of Ongwen. For example, does he have the right to appeal in the event he is convicted and where would his sentence be served? The court representative explained that Ongwen had a right to make an appeal in the event of a conviction. He also explained that, if convicted, Ongwen would have to serve his sentence in an ICC member country because the ICC does not have its own prison.
Another participant asked whether there was a possibility that Ongwen’s case could be referred back to Ugandan courts. The ICC representative responded that the ICC gives countries the option to request a case to be withdrawn and tried domestically through an appeals process. However, he noted that Uganda had not made this request.
Regarding the slow pace of the trial, one participant asked why the ICC has not set a specific time frame for the completion of Ongwen’s case. The ICC representative could only say that it was very difficult to set a time frame due to many unforeseen circumstances that could delay the case.
There is still a very large information gap about how the ICC operates that exists in northern Uganda, particularly among conflict-affected communities. While the move by the ICC to provide television screens and radios will help in enhancing these communities’ ability to follow the trial, the above questions indicate a need for sustained outreach throughout the trial.
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.