Sexual Violence against Men and Boys and its Relevance to the Trial of Dominic Ongwen

On February 2, 2018, the legal representatives for victims (LRV) in the trial of Dominic Ongwen sought leave to present evidence highlighting the harm victims have suffered as a result of crimes committed by the accused. Among the five issues highlighted by the LRV was the infliction of sexual violence on men and boys. The LRV’s submission raises a question regarding the relevancy of sexual violence committed against men and boys by the LRA, particularly given the fact that the LRA was known to target mostly women and girls.

Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is alleged to have committed the crimes between July 2002 and December 2005 while he was a commander in the LRA. His trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC) started in December 2016, and the prosecution presented its final witness earlier this month. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all counts, including to the crimes of sexual and gender based violence with which he is charged.

Over 4,000 victims have been allowed to participate [pdf] in Ongwen’s trial through their legal representatives. Paolina Massidda leads one team of victims’ lawyers and Joseph Akwenyu Manoba and Francisco Cox lead the other. Manoba and Cox’s team requested that three witnesses present evidence on sexual violence against men and boys.

On March 6, 2018, ICC Trial Chamber IX declined this request, on the basis that the matter does not fall within the scope of the charges Ongwen is facing. In their ruling, the judges noted that because the sexual crimes Ongwen has been charged with only relate crimes against women and girls, they do “not consider the hearing of this evidence [from male victims of sexual violence] to be appropriate and necessary for the determination of the truth.”

In response to the trial chamber ruling, Manoba and Cox’s team requested that the judges reconsider their decision, arguing that the allegations of sexual violence against men and boys are relevant to other charges Ongwen faces. The lawyers contended that sexual violence against men and boys “are consequences of the crimes charged and their results are therefore part of the harm suffered by the victims.”

On March 26, while accepting that sexual violence against men and boys could relate to charges in the case, the trial chamber rejected the LRV’s request for reconsideration on the matter.

How relevant is the question of sexual violence against men and boys in the LRA? In Ongwen’s case, the sexual violence crimes he has been charged with focus exclusively on women and girls, and many people in northern Uganda seem to hold the view that sexual violence was mainly perpetrated against only one gender. Therefore, when asked for their views about sexual violence against men and boys, community members in northern Uganda had varied reactions.

One former female abductee of the LRA said, “How can men be victims of sexual violence? Many girls between the ages of eight to nine years were abducted, and by the age of 13 or 14 years they were sexually abused and impregnated. So when we hear that men are also being fronted as victims of sexual violence, we are saddened.”

Another community member from Lukodi agreed: “Men did not experience sexual abuse, unless we are trying to say that within the LRA some men were marrying other men. Men were mainly forced to fight and forced commit bad crimes. But for girls, they would be given to older men against their will.”

Sexual violence against and men and boys has been linked to the National Resistance Army (NRA) or the present day Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF). After capturing power in 1986, many NRA soldiers were sent to northern Uganda to pursue remnants of the Ugandan army they had defeated, many of whom had retreated north. In the course of their mission, the NRA soldiers committed numerous human rights violations against the civilian population, including male rape, or ‘tek-gungu’ as it came to be known in the Acholi language.

A community member from Odek reiterated the above: “The LRA was not involved in sexual violence against men. It was the government soldiers. Here in Odek, I know over 20 men who were sodomized by government soldiers.”

A community psychosocial counselor, who has worked with formerly abducted children for many years remarked, “Sexual violence by the LRA did not affect men. It was mostly government soldiers who committed these crimes. There is no record about the LRA abusing men and boys sexually. I am not aware of any cases.”

A common reference point for sexual violence against men by NRA soldiers is Burcoro village [pdf], located in Gulu district, northern Uganda. In April 1991, soldiers of the NRA’s 22nd battalion descended onto Burcoro, rounded up the villagers, and detained them at Burcoro Primary School. Over the next four days, the villagers were mercilessly tortured as the soldiers screened them to identify rebel collaborators. Women and men alike were brutally and repeatedly raped. To this day, the people of Burcoro refer to the soldiers of the 22nd  battalion “as the ‘gung’ (‘bend for me’) battalion in reference to their acts of male rape.”

The above indicates the commonly held view that the LRA were not known to have inflicted sexual violence atrocities upon the men. However, Nancy Apio, a civil society practitioner who has worked with female LRA abductees for many years draws attention to the fact that sexual violence should not be limited to physical acts of sexual abuse but should be broadly defined to include other acts as well.

According to Apio, “Sexual violence includes sexually related acts committed against someone’s will due to threat, fear, and duress or in a coercive environment. Acts of sexual violence occur in conflict settings to both men and women, and is not only limited to rape but also other inhumane acts like forced marriage, forced circumcision, forced castration, mutilation of genitals, and watching loved ones being raped. Sexual violence against men is usually under reported.”

In addition, the LRA is known to have inflicted physical acts of torture against men, which could also include sexual acts of torture. It is therefore possible that sexual violence against men and boys by the LRA has been overlooked, a factor that Apio believes warrants investigation.

“Investigations would be an opportunity for justice for the male victims, their families, and communities, [and] an opportunity for closure and healing for the victims. It would also set precedent for justice for future forms of sexual violence against men. I think it would be good for investigations of sexual violence against men for fairness and justice to prevail, because it is important for the voices of the men and boys to be included in the justice processes,” said Apio.

A community member from Lukodi agreed with these statement: “I have not heard anything regarding sexual violence against men by the LRA, but if there are witnesses, then the matter needs to be investigated.”

Additionally, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) observes that “men and boys who have been sexually assaulted or abused may have many of the same feelings and reactions as other survivors of sexual assault, but they may also face some additional challenges because of social attitudes and stereotypes about men and masculinity.”

According to the Director of the Refugee Law Project, Dr Chris Dolan:

Disclosure of sexual violence by male survivors is a huge challenge. It is likely the case that the witnesses found it very hard to disclose their experiences, and that the LRV’s themselves therefore came to the issue of sexual violence against men and boys belatedly. The request to reconsider the scope of the charges to include sexual violence against men and boys within the LRA gave the judges of the ICC a golden opportunity to further demonstrate the progressive and inclusive potential of the Rome Statute’s provisions on Sexual Violence, and an opportunity, through the testimonies, to create a more truthful and accurate account of sexual violence that occurred within the LRA. Instead, they chose to pass up that opportunity. Their decision to exclude these particular late disclosures suggests a lack of understanding of how the process of disclosure works when it comes to highly stigmatising issues of this kind; by further entrenching the disincentives to disclosure by male victims, the judges’ decision also entrenches impunity for crimes of sexual violence committed against men and thus undermines the very purpose of the ICC, namely the ending of impunity.

Sexual violence against men and boys committed by the LRA was not among the charges brought by the ICC prosecution against Ongwen. Therefore, this request by the LRV highlights the importance of victims’ counsel to bring to light unaddressed crimes that may not otherwise catch the public’s attention. While mixed opinions may exists about the prevalence of such crimes, it has opened up the discussion to a much broader audience.

Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda and South Sudan 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.