Northern Uganda Commemorates International Justice Day amidst Calls for Justice and Reparations for War Victims

On July 17, 2018, northern Uganda joined the rest of the world in commemorating International Justice Day, which on this occasion was also the 20th anniversary of the Rome Statute, the treaty that led to the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, as many lauded the ICC for its contribution to peace in northern Uganda, they also reflected on the fact that not enough had been done to promote justice for victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) conflict.

In Uganda, discussions regarding the ICC and the Rome Statute go hand in hand with discussions on the trial of Dominic Ongwen, the former LRA commander who is currently on trial at The Hague-based court.

Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the former internally displaced persons (IDP) camps of Lukodi, Pajule, Odek, and Abok in northern Uganda. Among the 70 counts are charges of sexual and gender-based violence and the use of child soldiers. His trial, which is currently on recess until September 18, started in December 2016.

International Justice Day was commemorated in Gulu with a series of activities; including games, sports, and a student’s quiz competition. However, the key highlight was a public dialogue held at St. Monica Girl’s School. The objective of the dialogue was to provide members of affected communities and judicial actors with an opportunity to reflect on the key milestones of the ICC and Uganda’s own International Crimes Division (ICD). Participants discussed the contribution of the two jurisdictions in advancing justice for victims of mass atrocities in northern Uganda.

In the packed auditorium at the school, the over 200 dialogue participants reflected on the achievements of the ICC in Uganda since the founding of the Rome Statute, while at the same time acknowledging the fact that more still needed to be done to better the lives of victims who were affected by the conflict.

Speaking at the opening of the dialogue, Maria Mabinty Kamara, the ICC Field Outreach Officer in Uganda described the dialogue as an opportunity “to discuss and reflect openly and frankly on the key milestones of the ICC and the ICD in fighting impunity and delivering justice to victims that have endured the most grievous crimes.”

Kamara also noted the contribution of civil society organizations (CSOs) in advancing the work of the ICC. “Civil society groups have played key roles in advocating for the creation of the ICC. NGOs continue to be important intermediaries for the court and in helping to raise awareness about the ICC worldwide and advocating for universal acceptance of the Rome Statute,” said Kamara.

Sarah Kihika Kasande, the head of office of the International Center for Transitional Justice in Uganda noted that despite its achievements, “The ICC still has a long way to go in meeting the ambitions that are set out in the Rome Statute and is hampered by several challenges.”

Kasande highlighted challenges, including: the absence of universality with several states not being members of the court; failure by states to comply with the court’s requests; politicization of the court; an overload of expectations; and cases of witness intimidation.

Nabintu Ntakobajira, the Operations Officer with the ICC field office in Uganda, noted that the day “is important not only to show how far the world has moved in the attainment of global justice, but also offers an opportunity for reflection on the numerous tasks that lie ahead. The creation of the ICC is unquestionably one of the most important achievements of international law during the past century.”

The dialogue sprung to life with the remarks of Martin Ojara Mapenduzi, the Gulu District Chairperson, who – while acknowledging the achievements of the ICC – also highlighted gaps that remain in the pursuit of justice for victims of conflict in northern Uganda, gaps that cannot be adequately addressed by the ICC.

“You can never talk about the ICC without looking back and thinking about the things that happened. As we celebrate 20 years, we also find an opportunity to look back and talk about the things that happened 20 years or more ago. You can never talk about justice without looking at every aspect of justice,” said Mapenduzi.

Mapenduzi, however, acknowledged the fact that perceptions against the ICC had changed for the better since 2005.

“When the ICC started working in Uganda, there were mixed reactions. Most of the people were bitter. Why? Because many of us got to know about the ICC when news reached every corner that Joseph Kony and four other commanders were wanted by a body based in The Hague. And people asked, ‘Where has the ICC been all along? Why Kony and four commanders only? Why only crimes committed after 2002? Who then will talk about things that happened from 1986 to 2001?’ I am happy that through the outreach program, many were able to understand the ICC,” said Mapenduzi.

Mapenduzi used the occasion to emphasize the fact that the pursuit of justice in northern Uganda was far from over because many atrocities have not been addressed. However, he pointed out that this was not the fault of the ICC.

“As long as people continue seeing those who committed crimes against them walking free, it will remain painful and difficult to believe that there is indeed justice,” he added.

Mapenduzi also acknowledged the role of the ICC in bringing peace to northern Uganda. “As we count the number of people who played a role in making northern Uganda safe, we need to remember the ICC. The most important thing is that there is a trial going on, and there is no more impunity,” concluded Mapenduzi.

In addition to Ongwen, former LRA combatant Thomas Kwoyelo is facing war crimes charges before the ICD in Uganda’s domestic court system. Harriet Ssali, the ICD Registrar, who was also present at the dialogue, highlighted key activities of the ICD, including the proceedings against Kwoyelo, whose charges are yet to be confirmed. She also brought to light the fact that the ICD has handled 45 cases to date, although many people only know about Kwoyelo’s case.  Ssali discussed the significance of the principle of complementarity under the Rome Statute, noting the importance of the ICC in Uganda’s judicial system.

“The ICC cannot prosecute all crimes and hence there is need for domestic processes at the national level,” she noted.

In response to concerns by Mapenduzi, the ICD Registrar emphasized the fact that crimes committed before 2002 can be prosecuted by the ICD. “Why have crimes committed before 2002 not been brought to the attention of the ICD?  If there are cases between 1986 and 2001, they should be brought to the ICD,” she said.

Participants who attended the dialogue were also given an opportunity to ask questions and make comments.

Evelyn from Pabbo, Amuru District, asked to know why Ongwen is being tried in The Hague instead of Uganda. She also expressed the opinion that the ICC is currently preventing LRA fighters from surrendering because they fear being prosecuted like Ongwen.

Other participants questioned why only a limited number of suspects had been charged by the ICC and what will be done on behalf of victims at the conclusion of the court proceedings. Questions were also raised about state cooperation with the ICC as well as what would happen to the ICC investigation in northern Uganda after the Ongwen case concludes.

Many of the questions were not being asked for the first time. Victims had raised similar questions previously during outreach sessions in Uganda.  The responses to many of the above questions were provided by Kamara, who noted in her closing remarks the fact that the ICC remains a court of last resort, thus emphasizing the significance of the principle of complementarity under the Rome Statute.

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.