Do Victims Feel Adequately Represented in Ongwen’s Trial?

On April 13, 2018, the International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda notified the court that the prosecution had concluded presenting its case against former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen. This paved way for the second phase of the trial, in which the ICC judges permitted two teams of victims’ representatives to call witnesses to testify about the harm they suffered during the conflict in northern Uganda. This article explores community member’s reactions to this development and whether those in northern Uganda feel they have been adequately represented.

Ongwen has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the attack on four camps for internally displaced people (IDP): Lukodi, Abok, Pajule, and Odek. He has also been charged with sexual and gender-based crimes and conscripting child soldiers. Ongwen has denied all charges.

From May 1 to 24, the legal representatives of victims called seven witnesses to provide testimony. In total, there are 4,100 victims registered to participate in the trial. They are represented by two separate legal teams. One team is led by Joseph Akwenyu Manoba and Francisco Cox, who together represent 2,599 victims. The other team, comprising staff of the Office of the Public Counsel of Victims (OPCV), is led by Paolina Massidda and represents 1,501 victims.

In recognition of the significance of victims’ participation, judges at the ICC allowed the victims’ lawyers to call witnesses to testify about the harms victims suffered at the hands of the LRA. On May 1, witness V-2 testified about the stigma he faced at school as a result of his previous abduction by the LRA, a factor that forced him to eventually abandon education and resort to farming. On May 2, Vincent Oyet, a teacher at Lukodi Primary School, described pupils at Lukodi Primary School as a lost generation due the unconducive learning environment they had to endure due to the conflict. Additional testimony came from experts, including psychiatrists focusing on sexual violence and Acholi culture.

The participation of victims in the trial is significant given that they bore the brunt of the conflict. Community members in northern Uganda have been elated by this participation and many reacted positively to having representatives testify on their behalf.

Robert, a community member from Abok said, “It was good for some of our representatives to go and testify during the trial because it made us to feel represented. We feel that our voices have been heard and our experiences have been shared, which is a good thing for justice.”

“If the right people have been chosen to testify, and they have spoken about experiences of victims then that makes me happy,” said one former LRA abductee. “I am not sure if the witnesses who testified actually experienced what the victims went through. My expectation was for victims who took long in abduction to be the ones to speak for the victims.”

Fred, a CSO representative in Gulu, also lauded the participation of victims. “The trial has always been about the victims. Victims went through a lot, and they need to be represented. When given such as platform, it fulfils the need for representation,” he said.

“Many victims were feeling neglected at the onset of the trial,” said Thomas, a lawyer who lives in Gulu Town. “There are many categories of victims; there are those who want reparations and those who need medical rehabilitation. Legal representation is definitely important for them.”

Nancy, a conflict and gender practitioner in northern Uganda, also agreed that legal representation was important. “The decision by the judges to allow the legal representatives to call witnesses is important for the process of attaining justice provided the witnesses are protected and measures are in place to ensure their safety,” she said.

Asked if they felt they were being well represented by the victims’ representatives, many community members responded in the affirmative, although some respondents had reservations, particularly regarding representation of other victims who have not registered for participation in the trial.

“The lawyers have been coming to the community and consulting the victims on a regular basis. At least I can confirm that they have been consulting the people they represent frequently. Allowing some people to testify about what happened to victims makes us feel represented,” said Robert.

The opinion of the former LRA abductee differed from that of Robert. “There are many victims in northern Uganda, but the focus appears to be on only the ones registered to participate in the trial. Other victims, like me, who have not registered for participation have never been reached by the lawyers, so I feel there is a gap.”

“There is a gap,” said Fred in concurrence. “I recall that at the beginning of the trial there was even disagreement among the LRVs [legal representatives of victims] on who should represent the victims, which was only resolved when the court decided to have two sets of lawyers. However, with that having been resolved, the victims can have hope in the outcome.”

Thomas the lawyer also thought that the victims’ lawyers were doing a good job. “They are doing a good job,” he said, “because they have mobilized over four thousand victims to register and participate, and I believe they are fighting for a just outcome.”

An issue of contention, however, remains the number of witnesses that the legal representatives have been allowed to call. Asked to comment on whether the number of witnesses called by to testify was sufficient, most responded in the negative.

“There are many victims in northern Uganda,” said the former LRA abductee, “so the number of witnesses should have probably been higher. I feel they should have considered calling more victims including those who have not registered for participation.”

“The number should have been higher to enrich the testimonies. If you look at some of the witnesses who appeared, there were questions surrounding their credibility and whether they were genuine. I feel the selection process should have been more open and included more stakeholders who have worked directly with victims,” said Fred.

Thomas agreed: “I think the sample is small. I feel different categories of victims should have been represented. There are victims who need medical rehabilitation, while there are others who need compensation, so I feel they all should have been represented. I feel only seven witnesses for the LRVs was a small number.”

For Nancy, however, representation was not a factor necessarily determined by numbers. “It is not about numbers but the quality of information that is given by the witnesses. If the few witnesses can corroborate the evidence presented, then that is what matters. Victims tend to have similar and repetitive information, so it is not about numbers.”

While witnesses in the victims’ phase of a trial at the ICC do not give evidence and are only limited to testifying about the harm victims have suffered, their participation is nonetheless important to the historical record of the trial and ensures their stories are documented for others in northern Uganda and throughout the world to learn from.

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.