Archbishop John Baptist Odama is a long-term advocate for peace in northern Uganda. He recently discussed his thoughts regarding the trial of Dominic Ongwen before the International Criminal Court (ICC).
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. His trial at the ICC opened on December 6, 2016.
Archbishop Odama is the pontifical leader of Gulu Archdiocese, in northern Uganda. Following his ordination as Archbishop in April 1999, he dedicated his efforts to advocating and working for the return of peace in northern Uganda. In 2002, he was instrumental in organizing a series of meetings between the government and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). He was the chairperson of the interfaith organization Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI) from 2002 to 2010. The organization was involved in peace building efforts in Northern Uganda. Through ARLPI he played a significant role in advocating for blanket amnesty and forgiveness to ex-soldiers of the LRA. As a result of pressure from him and other prominent local leaders in northern Uganda, the Amnesty Act of 2000 was passed, which offered pardon to Ugandans who had been engaged in rebellion. During the Juba Peace talks, which started in 2006, Archbishop Odama was among the religious leaders who travelled frequently to the jungles of the Central African Republic (CAR) to meet with the LRA. In the course of these meetings, he met with Dominic Ongwen.
In 2012, Archbishop Odama was awarded the World Vision International Peace Prize, for his role in northern Uganda. In December 2016, the ICC, in collaboration with the Danish Embassy in Uganda, invited Archbishop Odama and other community leaders from northern Uganda to travel to The Hague for the opening of Ongwen’s trial.
Researchers from the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI) conducted an interview with Archbishop Odama to get his perspectives on the trial of Dominic Ongwen, which started in December 2016. Below are excerpts of the interview.
Q: Are you following the trial of Dominic Ongwen? If yes, what is your opinion about how it is progressing?
A: I am following the trial. As far as the trial is proceeding, it is evident that this case is quite complicated because Ongwen is both a victim and a perpetrator. How to prosecute a person who has been a victim, and at the same time committed crimes, needs God’s wisdom. The Danish embassy offered us the opportunity to go to The Hague at the opening of the trial [in December 2016] and it enabled us to witness what was happening. We would also like to be present at the time when the defense starts presenting its case so that we get a balanced opinion. For victims to be part of the process, it is important that frequent updates be given to the public in northern Uganda about the trial.
Q: Did you get an opportunity to meet with Dominic Ongwen while you were in The Hague in December 2016?
A: I really appreciated being part of the team that travelled to The Hague. Watching the lawyers present their arguments, and seeing the accused seated there with his defense counsel, and the presence of very many people with different interests who wanted to follow the case, was a great experience. It was a good opportunity to interact with ICC officials and to know how the ICC operates. It was also a good opportunity to meet with Ongwen. We wanted to meet with him because he is our child. We wanted to hear him tell us how he came out of the bush and what made him come out. We also wanted to know whether or not Ongwen agreed with the court process, and if he had any message to send back to his people at home and the public in Uganda. Ongwen was happy to see us. He welcomed us and hosted us with some tea. He expressed the desire to return home. He asked us to go and tell the people back home that he is fine and that they should remain calm.
Q: Did Ongwen express any views about his role in the LRA?
A: When you look at Ongwen, he looks very innocent. If we had been given a longer period to talk to him, we would have been able to ask him that question, but the time given to the five of us to meet him was very little. We were given only one hour, which was very little time since all of us needed to ask questions and get answers from him. The time moved very fast.
Q: You are famous for having travelled to the bush to engage with the LRA in peace talks. Did you meet Dominic Ongwen in the course of your interaction with the LRA?
A: Yes, I met with Ongwen and Joseph Kony himself. Ongwen knows me very well because on the occasions I went to the bush I used to meet him.
Q: Ongwen’s trial has attracted mixed reactions. What do have to say about the fact that some people support the trial, while others do not?
A: The trial of Ongwen has attracted different opinions. Some say that since he was abducted at a young age and grew up in captivity, he should not be charged. Others say the crimes he committed during the period when he was still below eighteen years of age should not be considered. Others say that he should be charged for only those crimes he committed when he was already an adult. Nevertheless, to me, the court should prove his innocence or otherwise. I am waiting to see the outcome of the trial.
Q: A good number of people in northern Uganda feel that Ongwen’s trial is not fair and have continued to call for him to be forgiven; what is your comment on this?
A: It is complicated. If you view Ongwen as [an abducted] person who was acting under orders, then he needs to be forgiven. However, the ICC is also saying that he has to be held accountable for crimes he committed beyond the age of eighteen years. I think that if Ongwen is proved guilty then he has to accept [his sentence], and that is why I say that there should be honesty, fairness, and truth.
Q: In your opinion, do you think there will be a positive outcome from Ongwen’s trial for lasting peace and justice in northern Uganda?
A: Honesty, fairness, and truth are what we want to see in order to ensure peace and justice. It is a big challenge for the ICC.
Q: The ICC has faced severe criticism since it was established. What is your opinion on the ICC as an institution? Do you think that it is making an impact in the global fight against impunity?
A: The ICC was established by over 100 countries so it is a legal institution. They need to work very fairly. The case of the LRA was the first to be referred to the ICC but it is not yet complete. There are cases which came after Ongwen’s case and were already completed. If Ongwen’s case is finalized successfully then all will be well.
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.