At the start of Dominic Ongwen’s trial, the question of how victims and community members in northern Uganda would follow court proceedings presented a complex challenge, given that proceedings would take place in The Hague. This question has to a large extent been solved through public screenings organized by the field outreach section of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Several public screenings have been organized by the ICC field outreach office, an initiative that has enabled thousands of people in communities to keep track of Ongwen’s trial. In this article, community members from Lukodi highlight why the public screenings are important for them.
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 started in December 2016. With the prosecution having concluded their part, Ongwen’s defense started presenting their case in September 2018.
To keep the public in northern Uganda informed, and most importantly the communities in which Ongwen is accused of having committed crimes, the ICC field outreach office has been organizing the regular screening of select recorded sessions of the trial.
“During the opening of the trial of Dominic Ongwen, there was a high interest demonstrated by victims, affected communities, and various stake holders in northern Uganda in following the proceedings that are taking place in The Hague, thousand of kilometers away from northern Uganda,” Maria Mabinty Kamara, ICC Field Outreach Coordinator, said.
“We opened 23 viewing centers in communities where Ongwen allegedly committed crimes in order to make the trial proceedings more accessible and meaningful to the populations they matter most to—the victims. The screenings have widened and deepened the understanding of the communities in the court proceedings,” Kamara explained.
A typical public screening session involves the mobilization of the community by community leaders, who spread word about the date, location, and time of a screening. The screenings usually take place in central places within the community such as schools, market places, or entertainment spots. The attendance depends on the size of the community, and will usually consist of youth, women, men, and elders. Many community members have lauded the initiative, saying it enables them to follow the trial.
Betty, a community member from Lukodi who has attended at least five sessions said, “I am one of the victims who suffered from this war so it is very important for me to attend [the public screenings] so that I am aware of how far the court proceedings have gone. The public screening is very good because it keeps us updated.”
Justine, another community member said, “The screening is very important because there are always new developments so it is very important to know the changes. It is working for us here because we do not have radios or even the opportunity to attend the court proceedings.”
“The screening is a very good initiative to bring the trial close to people who are unable to get the information from anywhere else,” said Kenery, another community member. “Many people always attend, so it is very effective in reaching a big number of people from the different villages. Most people want to see Ongwen on the screen and so they come in big numbers.”
For Boniface, another community member, following the trial is important so that they can understand how the court will arrive at the final verdict.
“It is very important for us victims to know what is going on at the court so that even at the end when the final ruling is made, we are able to know whether the judgment was fair or unfair. It is good to know how far the trial has gone and what each side is saying and also whether the witnesses are really truthful. I appreciate the effort made [by the ICC] to bring the screening here. I am very happy about it and wish that this should happen till the end of the trial,” said Boniface.
Lucy, another community member, believed the public screenings were good for bringing the community together.
“This screening is very important because it gathers the community together and also avails opportunity for us to know more about the court and the trial itself. There is no way we can know these things besides being present for the screening. It is very important for the victims to come and watch the screening because it gives them the opportunity to hear and see for themselves what is going on at the ICC without just being told,” remarked Lucy.
Pilina, another female community member, agreed with Lucy. “This screening is very good because it allows everyone to participate in the trial process. As a result of this screening, we have known the different witnesses that the court has presented so far and what the witnesses are saying about the Lukodi attack. This gives us a background for reactions and questions,” she said.
A community screening will usually start with a background explanation from one of the ICC field outreach staff, who explains the different sessions that are about to be screened based on most recent sessions from the trial. The length of the screenings varies depending on the content, and are usually translated into the Acholi language. This has enabled many community members who do not understand English language to follow.
“I am able to follow [the public screenings] clearly without difficulty because it is translated into the local language. The only challenge I have is that as an elderly person, I keep forgetting some of the things I have heard,” said Betty.
“I am understanding everything because it is in the local language which we all speak and clearly understand,” Justine said in agreement with Betty.
Kenery added his voice in agreement. “I am not finding any difficulty in following the trial because it is in the language that I know and also where I do not understand, we are always given the chance to ask and get clarity,” he said.
“If it was hard to follow, many people would have abandoned the screenings and not followed the trial as it stands,” explained Boniface.
Lucy praised the efforts by the ICC outreach team to explain complex matters to them. “I am finding it easy to follow the proceedings because where we have not understood, it is explained well by the ICC team present so even if one has not understood why certain things are being done, after the screening, they are given the chance to ask the ICC team to elaborate more.” said Lucy.
To enhance the effectiveness of the public screenings, the Danish Embassy in Uganda, in November 2017, donated video equipment—including TV screens, power generators, and sound systems—to 23 select parishes from four case locations (Odek, Lukodi, Abok, and Pajule). The equipment was meant to facilitate the monthly screening of video recordings of the trial.
As Ongwen’s trial progresses, the use of public screenings in Uganda could set precedents for other trials that may occur elsewhere as it has clearly enabled the public to follow the proceedings. The public screenings have without doubt been instrumental in promoting victim participation.
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.