Uganda’s relationship with the International Criminal Court (ICC) could be described as ambiguous given a series of recent disturbing incidents. Key among them is the tenacity to twice host Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir despite being a state signatory to the Rome Statute of the ICC, and, moreover, amidst an ongoing trial of a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander from Uganda.
The Sudanese president has two outstanding arrest warrants issued by the ICC in 2009 and 2010 on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide allegedly committed in Darfur, Sudan, where it is estimated that around 300,000 people were killed and over two million were forced to leave their homes between 2003 and 2008. However, the Sudanese president has defied the ICC by visiting several countries, including Uganda, despite the arrest warrants. As a signatory to the Rome Statute, Uganda has failed to uphold its obligation to arrest President al-Bashir.
Even more disturbing is the fact the visits took place against the backdrop of the trial of Dominic Ongwen, which is currently ongoing before the ICC in The Hague. Ongwen, a former commander of the 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.
While the Ugandan government has been supportive of the trial on the one hand – as demonstrated for example by assisting in providing crucial evidence needed by the prosecution – its welcoming attitude towards President al-Bashir, coupled with public criticism of the ICC by Uganda’s president has cast a shadow of doubt and uncertainty on Uganda’s future relationship with the court.
In May 2016, President al-Bashir attended the swearing in ceremony of President Yoweri Museveni. At this occasion, President Museveni infamously called the ICC as “a bunch of useless people,” and European, United States, and Canadian diplomats who were present at the function walked out in protest. A cross-section of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Uganda also objected strongly to the visit. This came barely five months following Ongwen’s surrender in January 2016 and subsequent transfer to the ICC, a process that was unconditionally supported by Uganda.
On November 14-15, 2017, President al-Bashir conducted another state visit to Uganda, again at the invitation of President Museveni. This time he was treated to a red carpet welcome and accorded a 21-gun salute. He also inspected a guard of honor mounted by the Uganda Police Force. President al-Bashir then went on to hold bilateral discussions with President Museveni on a number of issues of mutual importance between the two countries as well as regional matters. This visit came at a time when Ongwen’s trial had advanced significantly.
On this occasion, a group of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Uganda took action by issuing a statement calling for the Ugandan Government to arrest President al-Bashir.
The Uganda Victims Foundation (UVF) went one-step further and filed an application in a Ugandan court seeking to enforce the arrest warrants for al-Bashir. A hearing was held at the International Crimes Division of the High Court in Kampala on November 15. However, the court declined to issue a provisional arrest warrant for al-Bashir and instead fixed the hearing on the matter to a later date, effectively quashing any attempts to arrest the Sudanese president. Amidst this backdrop, al-Bashir concluded his visit and left the country, while Ongwen’s trial went on in The Hague.
Uganda’s relationship with the ICC is puzzling, given the long history of cooperation that has been displayed by the Ugandan government in supporting the work of the court. Uganda was one of the first countries to ratify the Rome Statue on June 14, 2002. Uganda went on record as one of the first countries to make a referral, when on December 16, 2003, it referred the situation of the LRA in northern Uganda to the ICC. Uganda hosted the first review conference of the ICC in 2010.
In addition, when Ongwen surrendered on January 16, 2015, Uganda showed remarkable cooperation by immediately agreeing for him to be transferred to The Hague for trial. Much of the evidence currently being used by the Office of the Prosecutor in Ongwen’s trial was provided by the Ugandan security forces and police in the form of radio intercepts.
Most recently, the Assembly of States Parties (ASP) to the ICC elected Ugandan judge Solomy Balungi Bossa to serve on the court.
Given the above examples of cooperation, it is puzzling why the Ugandan government chose to defy its obligation under the Rome Statute by hosting President al-Bashir.
In October 2017, Burundi became the first country to withdraw from the ICC. Shortly before this withdrawal, Gambia and South Africa were also threatening to pull out. Since then, Gambia changed its stance following the defeat of President Yahya Jammeh, while South Africa revoked its withdrawal in March 2017 after its High Court ruled that Parliament would have to approve the measure. However, in August 2017, Africa’s top intelligence officials from 51 countries met in Kigali and signed a statement accusing the court of being “hijacked by powerful western countries” and “acting as a proxy” for foreign-led government change. Last week, South Africa again reversed it’s position and indicated to the ASP that it will attempt to withdraw from the ICC.
Could the answer lie in Uganda being caught up in the wave of anti-ICC criticism that has swept the African continent in the past several years, resulting in fears of mass withdrawal by African countries from the Rome Statute?
Regardless of the reasons, the fact that Uganda is currently the focus of the trial of Dominic Ongwen reinforces the need for more support for the ICC on the part of the government. Thus, Uganda should support the ICC, not work against it. While Ongwen’s case may not be impacted by these actions directly, it is still necessary that the Ugandan government accords the ICC full and unambiguous support during the course of 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.