Questions about Ongwen’s Trial Dominate International Justice Day Celebrations in Uganda

As the rest of the world commemorated the World Day for International Justice on July 17, in northern Uganda it was once again a time to reflect on current events that are shaping the pursuit of justice in a region that suffered close to two decades of conflict. At an event hosted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) in Gulu, participants, therefore, had many questions about the trial of Dominic Ongwen, which is currently ongoing at the ICC.

The recent arrest and detention of Krispus Ayena Odongo, Ongwen’s lead defense lawyer in his trial, was a topic of particular interest to participants gathered at the event. Odongo was arrested last week over a lawsuit involving an election petition he lost 2016.

Rosalba Oywa, a civil society activist and one of the participants at the event, asked court officials present how Odongo’s arrest would affect the trial.

“We heard rumors of the arrest of Krispus Ayena Odongo, the lead defense counsel for Ongwen. If that information is true, how will it impact on the trial?” Oywa asked.

“In relation to Ayena’s arrest, he is with the Ugandan authorities, and the ICC cannot say much about it. However, his team is composed of many people who are capable of doing the work. I don’t know how his arrest will impact the trial because even so, the court is still on recess,” responded Maria Mabinty Kamara, the ICC Outreach Coordinator in Uganda.

Other issues of discussion at the event included the situation of victims as they wait for the trial to conclude, the limited the scope of the ICC investigation in northern Uganda, and the ICC’s methodology for identification of victims and witnesses for participation in the trial.

Ongwen is a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the former internally displaced person (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 ICC has been ongoing since December 2016.

Speaking at the opening of the ceremony, Kamara reiterated the significance of the ICC and noted that the possibility of reparations at the end of the trial.

“The ICC is dedicated to bringing to justice some of the world’s most heinous crimes. Without justice, there can be no lasting peace. There will be requests for reparations at the end of the trial by victims if there is conviction,” she said.

Sarah Kihika, the Uganda representative of the ICTJ, noted the need to promote complementarity by closing impunity gaps. “The celebrations have come at a proper time when the case of Kwoyelo is being handled by the International Crimes Division (ICD) sitting in Gulu, and Dominic Ongwen in The Hague. As we celebrate, we should think of closing the impunity gaps and call government into action through strong and independent judicial processes. Crimes that threaten world peace should not be left to the ICC alone; the society in general should take action and hold world states accountable”

Members of the public who attended the event were given an opportunity to make comments and ask questions, and there was heavy focus on Ongwen’s trial.

Henry Oryem, one of the participants asked, “If Ongwen is denying the charges against him, is he implying that [there] is someone else who committed the crimes?”

Kamara responded, “The charges against Dominic Ongwen are still allegations, and it is why the trial is going on to find out the truth. It is the role of the prosecutor to find strong evidence beyond doubt. The prosecution presented over 60 witnesses, victims counsels presented seven witnesses, and the defense has so far called 40 witnesses. The method of proof is beyond reasonable doubt. I urge you to follow the process with an open mind and avoid speculations because it sometimes leads to frustrations.”  

Another participant called Acayo remarked, “To date only Ongwen and Kwoyelo are being held accountable [for crimes in northern Uganda]. There is [a] need to also focus on other perpetrators.”

“The ICC issued arrest warrants for five LRA commanders. There could be many commanders still at large, but it is the primary duty of the government to bring these people to justice,” responded Kamara.

James Okello, a community member from Odek, suggested that the final ruling in Ongwen’s trial be delivered in Uganda:“I find it important that when the ICC is delivering its ruling, it should be done from the location where the crimes were committed so that the people understand properly.” His comment received no response.

Victims in northern Uganda continue to hold high expectations for reparations at the end of the trial. Reparations, however, can only be ordered in the event of a conviction. Many participants highlighted the dire situation of victims as they wait for the trial to conclude.

“There should be some livelihood programs to enhance the economic capacity of victims because they are seriously suffering. Does the ICC have any partner organizations supporting livelihoods and productivity of victims,” asked David Amone.

“There is a very high level of trauma, stigma, and abject poverty among the victims, and formerly abducted women are being rejected by their husbands,” said Reverend Joel Opira. “Institutions should be empowered to implement livelihood activities.”

“Victims are living in abject poverty. The ICC Trust Fund for Victims should extend to families in order to fight poverty. We inherited poverty from our forefathers, we have lived in poverty, and now we are handing it over to our children who will possibly hand over to their children if the situation is not tackled now. Physical and mental rehabilitation should be provided to victims. There should be reparations for the loses suffered,” added Jimmy, a landmine survivor. 

In response to these comments, Kamara explained that the “ICC is a judicial institution, not a humanitarian institution, and it is serving a completely complementary role. The ICC Trust Fund for Victims is not reparations but merely an interim support to victims. The bigger gap should be filled by the government.”

Keneth Odong, another participant, drew attention to the long-running debate in northern Uganda regarding the limited scope of the ICC investigation that occurred only after 2002 when the Rome Statue came into effect.

“The ICC is talking about justice, but for me, I am [convinced] that it is the next generation that may see true justice. The ICC has limited the scope of [Ongwen’s] trial to after 2002, yet a lot of crimes were committed outside that period. Many women were abused by the government forces. Personally, I was abducted together with my two brothers, who have never returned. What are you doing about these missing persons?” Odong asked.

“The justice gap in Uganda is still a big challenge with the question of who determines the bearer of the greatest responsibility still left unanswered. As you know, the ICC is a court of last resort. The government of Uganda bears the primary responsibility and is obliged to see that perpetrators are brought to justice,” responded Kihika of ICTJ.

Another issue of discussion revolved around the identification of victims and witnesses for participation in the trial.    

“We are not happy because the ICC and ICD claim to work with victims, but we don’t know the people they actually mean because we are the real victims…What procedures do you use to identify a victim?” asked Stella, a former LRA abductee.

“If the ICC jokes with this case, they will create another catastrophe in Acholi. We are angry with the wrong witnesses being selected,” said Charles, one of the participants.

“Ongwen’s trial is progressing well, but our concern is that the court is caring for the suspect more than the victims as portrayed in the way Ongwen is well kempt,” said a community member from Abok.

In response, Kamara explained, “The notion of real victims has always been popping [up], but I urge you all to be open minded because witnesses are selected based on the relevance/significance of their statements. There are thousands of victims who are potential witnesses, but the court does not have that much resources and time. People should also understand the difference between a victim and a witness. A victim is someone who suffered direct harm, but a witness can be anyone with concrete evidence of an incident. The victims counsel at the ICC called only seven victims and to them it was sufficient.

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.