Community members in northern Uganda were elated by the visit of the three International Criminal Court (ICC) judges hearing the case against Dominic Ongwen. Judges Bertram Schmitt, Péter Kovács, and Raul C. Pangalangan visited northern Uganda from June 3-9, 2018 and interacted with community members in Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok. These are the locations in which Ongwen is accused of leading attacks on Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps.
Ongwen’s trial started on December 6, 2016, and the prosecution’s presentation of evidence concluded in April this year. The trial is currently on recess until September 18, when the defense will make its opening statements. Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in attacks on the four IDP camps. He has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes and conscripting child soldiers. Ongwen has denied all the charges.
According to a statement released by the ICC following the visit, “The judges considered that this visit would be useful and appropriate to gain an immediate impression of these locations after having heard the Prosecution’s presentation of evidence at trial. The visit took place together with representatives of the Office of the Prosecutor, the Defence and the Legal Representatives of the victims in the case. The delegation also met with community leaders from the area.” The visit was not publicized in advance.
Following the judicial site visit, many community members and civil society organization (CSO) representatives applauded the visit for various reasons. For some, it was an opportunity for judges to verify information provided by community members.
A community leader from Lukodi said, “I believe they came to get a first-hand understanding of the things that witnesses said in court. They came and were able to see Lukodi for themselves. It made us happy, and I think even them they were happy because they were able to verify that what we were telling them was the truth. I believe that this will be essential for the ruling.”
For others, the visit was an opportunity for the judges to connect with locations they had only heard about through witness testimonies. In Odek, the judges took time to walk around and visit Odek Primary School where Joseph Kony studied prior to joining the LRA.
“The visitors [ICC Judges] made the community members happy because they came to learn how the conflict affected us,” said a community leader from Odek. “When they reached Odek, they parked their cars at the sub-county headquarters and then crossed the bridge and went to Odek Primary School. They were able to learn how the rebels attacked Odek camp. They interacted with community members briefly. I personally think their coming pleased the community,” he added.
For others, like a community leader in Abok, it was an opportunity to confirm that the judges were real and not fictitious, as they had never met them face-to-face. It also served to reinforce their confidence in the outcome of the trial.
“Their [ICC judges] coming pleased the community very much and increased their confidence that the court process would yield some fruits. People used to watch them on television, but this time they saw them physically, a factor which made them believe that the court process is real and not like a film which is acted,” said the community leader from Abok.
A community member from Pajule also praised the visit. “People met them, and it was an opportunity to learn about progress in the trial. From my observation, the community members had no problem with the visit. They were happy because they felt it would lead to something good. For the judges to come in person was a sign to the community members of how important this case is,” said the community member.
One CSO representative also felt the visit was essential for the final ruling that the judges would issue.
“When you are a judge you need to be aware of what is happening on the ground and how the victims are feeling to help you to make a judgement. You do not simply reach your judgement without knowledge where the crime happened or hearing from the people. A judge needs to know public opinion and the consequences of his actions. The judges needed to see the impacts of the conflict for themselves. So the visit was fine in my opinion because it will contribute to the judgement,” said the CSO representative.
A lawyer working in Gulu town agreed with the CSO representative. “The visit is good for the trial and especially for the victims because it enabled the judges to confirm actual events on the ground, which will help them to make decisions. There are victims who are still hoping for reparations, so the coming of the judges helps to restore hope in them.”
Despite the above positive comments, a few community members felt the visit had not been well publicized, thus denying some people a chance to participate, but others had no problem with the lack of publicity.
A community member in Lukodi, who had been following the trial and attending outreach sessions organized by the ICC field outreach unit, was one of those who felt left out.
“The judges came, but I was personally not around,” said a community member who felt side-lined. “It was a surprise visit because if at all they wanted to get the right views they should have given us prior information. But they did not notify us. In most cases, the ICC outreach would mobilize us for a big visit like this by giving at least a week’s notice. But many community members were just surprised to see many vehicles descending on Lukodi and escorted by the police. It was a surprise visit,” he added.
A CSO representative who also felt the visit should have been publicized said: “The only problem is that they did not publicize their visit because this is a matter of public concern. When you are dealing with an issue that concerns the public you do not simply sneak in like a thief and go away before people realize. The judges were well protected, so I do not know what prevented them from publicizing their visit so that they meet a big number of people. When the ICC prosecutor [Fatou Bensouda] visited Uganda, she moved all over northern Uganda and met openly with the people. If they were concerned with security, I am sure that would not have been a problem for the Ugandan government.”
The lawyer from Gulu town, however, saw no problem with the lack of publicity, reasoning that the judges probably had their reasons. “I think it was better that their visit was not publicized because some people could have worked to distort the information on the ground,” said the lawyer.
“The community was not prepared to meet the judges, but the people who were alerted were available. Otherwise the community felt no offense by this,” said the community member from Pajule in support of the lawyer.
In 2012, during the trial of Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, ICC trial chamber judges also visited the area where crimes were committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, no trial chamber has since undertaken this activity, despite at least one request. The initiative by the ICC judges to visit northern Uganda must therefore be praised because it is significant for providing a better understanding of the case they must rule on.
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.