It has been a long year in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, with the prosecution wrapping up its case and the defense starting to present its part. As 2018 draws to a close, community members and the general public in northern Uganda continue to have mixed feelings about the trial. However, in Lukodi village, one of the locations in which Ongwen is accused of committing crimes, community members continue to support the ICC and predict a positive outcome in favor of victims. This article presents their perspectives in this regard.
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 before the International Criminal Court (ICC) started in December 2016, and Ongwen’s defense is currently presenting their side of the case. The trial went on recess after the testimony of the 14thdefense witness, and is due to resume on January 10, 2019.
Asked if they still believed that Ongwen’s trial before the ICC was justified, many of the community members responded in the affirmative.
“The court should continue with the trial because it is the only way to get justice. I am happy that Ongwen is being tried because it was his crime that made him be arrested and taken to the court,” said Betty, a community member.
Justine agreed with Betty, arguing that Ongwen’s trial was also an avenue for victims to receive reparations. “The victims want justice and the only way to get it is through the court process,” he said. “The victims also want reparations which only the court can order, so the trial is very beneficial to us as a community.”
“It is good that Ongwen is at the court because it gives us hope that all is not lost and there can still be justice,” said Justine, another community member. “The only place for Ongwen now is the court, until he is proven guilty or innocent. Let him be tried so that the victims can get justice.”
“Everyone wants justice for their loved ones who died during the war and by seeing Ongwen at the court, we feel justice is on its way,” added another community member, named Lucy.
Asked if they felt there were other alternative mechanisms to the ICC for pursuing justice for victims in northern Uganda, many of the community members responded negatively.
“I really do not see another way to obtain justice besides the ICC because if anyone wanted to use a different platform, he or she should have started at the beginning; but not now that the court is almost coming to an end,” said Betty.
“It is really a hard question for me because I am not sure of any method better than the ICC,” said Justine. “I would have been in a position to give a suggestion if Ongwen was being tried in Uganda here. Now that he is being tried in The Hague, it is very hard for us to choose any alternative measure.”
“Personally, I know that the ICC is an international court and there is no other court greater than the ICC where we can refer the case of Dominic Ongwen. Basically, there is no other justice mechanism that I think can handle this case except the ICC for now,” said Boniface.
Another community member called Pilina said, “I do not know about any other justice mechanism that can be used at this stage because it is a very serious case that even our traditional justice mechanism would hardly be in place to handle.”
The opinions of the community members above reflect the change in perceptions against the ICC since it intervened in northern Uganda in 2004. Initially received with aggression and viewed as a spoiler to peace negotiations between the Government and the LRA, the ICC today has significant support in northern Uganda. The Lukodi community members reaffirmed this.
“My initial opinion about the ICC was that it was an organization which had come to bring problems to Uganda by taking away Dominic, who was supposed to be tried and we get justice. Now I know that ICC is also working for us the victims. Without the ICC, we would not be having video screenings and information about the trial,” said Betty.
“My opinion about the ICC has not changed since the court started and I am hopeful that the ICC will deliver the justice we need,” Boniface.
In Lucy’s view, “My opinion about ICC has changed because at first I thought it was a court on its own. But now I know it is supported by other countries who form its membership.”
In October 2017, the International Justice Monitor asked community members in northern Uganda how they would react if Ongwen was acquitted by the court. Many community members, particularly victims’ representatives, said they would be very disappointed by a “not guilty” verdict. The community members in Lukodi reaffirmed this sentiment but continued to predict that the court would find Ongwen guilty.
“I am very positive that Ongwen will be found guilty of the crimes he has committed. Actually, his lawyers are indirectly asking for forgiveness from the public by saying that Ongwen was still young at the time of his abduction and did not know what he was doing as a child,” said Betty.
“For me I think the prosecution team will win the case because the defense team is bringing in false statements and wrong witnesses,” said Justine. “I am sure the court will find Ongwen guilty.”
“Personally, I am very sure that there will be justice for the victims,” added Boniface. “Ongwen will be found guilty and I am very certain that this ruling will bring peace to the victims.”
Pilina agreed with all the above opinions. “The way I see the court proceeding, I am sure that there will be justice for the victims. Ongwen will surely be proven guilty.”
As Ongwen’s trial is set to resume in January 2019, the above sentiments reflect the diverse opinions that continue to exist among the victims and the general public in northern Uganda. While some people continue to be in favor of the ICC, others are not and view Ongwen’s trial as unfair. Perceptions about Ongwen’s trial will therefore likely remain mixed throughout his trial.
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