Gauging Public Interest (Part Three): Community Members’ Suggestions for Increasing Interest in Dominic Ongwen’s ICC Trial

This article explores suggestions from community members in northern Uganda regarding what needs to be done to increase public interest in the trial of Dominic Ongwen. The article follows two previous International Justice Monitor posts that present results from a rapid assessment conducted in September 2017 involving 50 community members and civil society representatives in northern Uganda. The assessment aimed to measure the level of public interest in following the trial of Dominic Ongwen, and established that 56% of the respondents were following the trial, while 44% said they were not following the trial. The third and last post in the series examines views from the participants on how public interest in following the trial can be enhanced.

Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) 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 International Criminal Court (ICC) opened on December 6, 2016, and is still ongoing in The Hague, Netherlands.

On the basis of the survey, which revealed that only 56% of those interviewed were following Ongwen’s trial, we asked for suggestions as to what could be done to increase public interest in the trial. The respondents made varying suggestions.

As expected, many were quick to suggest an increase in information flow to all grassroots communities of northern Uganda. The participants felt that much of the ICC’s outreach and the community screenings had been limited to communities where Ongwen is accused by the ICC of leading attacks, whereas LRA victims are spread throughout northern Uganda.

Angella, a local leader from Pader, said, “There should be a local platform where information about the trial is disseminated to every district in a language that everyone understands, to really make it a national issue.”

“There is a gap in the flow of information, particularly to areas outside the Acholi region. For example, here in the Teso region there is less focus. If this gap in information is bridged, then information will spread all over the country and not only in one specific area,” said James, a local leader from Teso in eastern Uganda.

“The people who are supposed to be following this trial are not those of us who are in the urban areas but those in the rural areas (grassroots) who are the real victims. For people’s interest to be increased, there should be video coverage translated into the local language and given to people all over northern Uganda to watch,” suggested Joseph, a student from Gulu University.

Beatrice, a civil society organization [CSO] worker in Gulu remarked, “The debate on the trial of Ongwen should be kept alive and there should be no gaps in information updates so public interest in following the case can be maintained. Spot messages should be frequently run on the radio to enable the public to get to know what is going on.”

A community member based in Lukodi also complained about the frequency of updates, saying, “Here in my community people are very interested in following the trial, but it really takes so long for information to arrive. At least the trial updates should be given twice a week.”

Many participants in the survey expressed frustration with the speed at which the trial is progressing and cited that as the reason for their lack of interest in following the trial. It is therefore not surprising that many participants suggested that the court process be accelerated.

“People expected the court case to move faster, so to maintain their interest, the ICC needs to sensitize the public on how crucial the matter is and the consequences of rushing this case,” said Joyce, a CSO worker in Gulu.

“The trial is taking so long and making people lose interest in following it. To me, I feel the ICC should set a timeframe for when this case will end to give people more interest in following it,” said Brian, a resident of Gulu town.

Annet, another community member, added, “I suggest the trial be speeded up so interest in following it will pick up. Most people have lost interest because they say the case is taking so long, and even some victims are dying without seeing justice done.”

Another community member suggested that many people were probably waiting to hear the defense side of the trial, and that is why they were losing interest. “The court process should be speeded up because most people are also interested in hearing the defense,” said Alice.

Lilly, a former LRA abductee, was only interested in the outcome of the trial and not the process itself. “We only want to hear that Ongwen has been found guilty and that he will be served with life imprisonment. Justice and fairness and truth-telling should be emphasized to give people the morale to follow the trial,” she said.

Many people in northern Uganda have previously expressed the desire to have the court proceedings conducted in Uganda. It is not surprising, therefore, that this suggestion emerged.

“For people’s interest to increase, the trial should at least once be brought to Uganda for the people to realize that this is a Ugandan case. But conducting the entire case in The Hague will always sound mysterious to people,” said Angella, a local leader from Pader district.

Nicholas, a resident of Gulu Town, added, “To make people interested, the case should be brought to Uganda so they can participate fully in the trial proceedings. Also, let the right people be prosecuted and not Dominic Ongwen, who was not protected at an early stage of his life.”

Alfred, another community member, added his voice to calls for a localized trial. “If it’s still possible, the trial should be brought back here to Uganda to enable people to become interested in following the trial,” he said.

“The trial should have taken place in Uganda so that people can follow it directly and to enable even the victims to have access to it,” added Brenda.

Many participants suggested mass public sensitization using available channels through which the public can follow the trial.

“For the people to be interested in the trial, massive sensitization should be done, not only when trial hearings have taken place, but also when there have been no hearings or about when they are going to take place, to keep people updated,” suggested Sally a CSO worker in Gulu.

“What I feel should be done is massive community sensitization down to the grassroots level, because sometimes people have radios but have no time to listen to them. All methods of sensitization should be considered,” suggested Grace, a resident of Gulu town.

Christopher, a CSO worker in Gulu town remarked, “Many people are not aware of what is going on in the ICC Ongwen trial. I would suggest more sensitization of the public about how the court operates and what they should expect after the trial. Public debates should be conducted on the radio and in public gatherings to allow people to give their views on this trial.”

“There should be a frequent flow of information on the ongoing trial. Even if the court breaks sometimes, spot messages regarding the trial should be kept running so that the public can keep track,” added James, another CSO worker.

“Constant information should be given to the public through the radio to generate interest in following the trial. But if they continue updating people only every month or two like they are doing, the majority of people end up forgetting or becoming reluctant to follow the case,” said Charles, a resident of Gulu Town.

Along similar lines, one respondent suggested the use of social media platforms to target audiences such as the youth. “The ICC representatives should make use of social media through platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which a lot of people use, and especially the youth,” suggested Samuel, a computer trainer in Gulu.

The above suggestions by community members in northern Uganda demonstrate what they feel needs fixing in order to enhance public interest in following Ongwen’s trial. The ICC field outreach office and CSOs conducting outreach in northern Uganda need to take these into consideration if they are to keep public interest in the case alive.

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-governmental organization based in Gulu District that works with children, youth, women, and communities to promote justice, development, and economic recovery in northern Uganda.