Community Members in Northern Uganda Highlight the Significance of Prosecuting Sexual Violence

On September 20, Krispus Ayena Odongo, Dominic Ongwen’s lead lawyer, filed a motion in which he argued that the 11 counts of crimes relating to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) Ongwen is facing should be dismissed because they did not include details of where the crimes are alleged to have occurred. Odongo argued that this lack of detail affected how Ongwen prepared his defense, infringing on his fair trial rights. However, in an October 8 decision, Trial Chamber IX unanimously rejected the defense motion because it was not timely. In this article, community members and civil society representatives in northern Uganda highlight the criticality of SGBV crimes to the conflict in northern Uganda and why they cannot be excluded from any accountability processes.

Ongwen is a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander who is facing 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed between July 2002 and December 2005. His trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC) started in December 2016. Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all counts, including to the crimes of sexual and gender based violence with which he is charged.

The LRA is known to have abducted thousands of girls, many of whom were later forced to become “wives” to rebel commanders. Most of the community members and civil society representatives who gave their opinions highlighted the fact that SGBV crimes needed to be given top priority in any accountability proceedings related to the conflict in northern Uganda.

One former LRA abductee noted that most of the SGBV crimes were committed voluntarily and should therefore be prosecuted.

“Other crimes are disputable because someone can say he did not do it,” said the former abductee. “However, SGBV crimes were committed by choice by every senior commander. The women had no choice to refuse a man. If you refused, you would be beaten. Removing SGBV crimes would beat all understanding of prosecuting crimes in northern Uganda. If SGBV crimes are not prosecuted, then which crimes will be prosecuted? For other crimes like killing and fighting the LRA commanders can claim they were forced, but for SGBV crimes it was voluntary.”

Geoffrey, a community member from Odek also reiterated the fact that SGBV crimes had been committed all over northern Uganda.

“As community members, we believe SGBV crimes cannot be removed from any charges involving an LRA commander in northern Uganda because most of them indulged in acts of abusing young girls and women. All over northern Uganda girls were abducted and given to LRA commanders. So these crimes must be prosecuted for all LRA commanders,” he said.

In the opinion of Fred, a civil society representative in northern Uganda, SGBV crimes rank top among the incidents committed by the LRA in northern Uganda.

“I literally think that the strongest case is on SGBV crimes,” observed Fred. “This is because most of these crimes were committed out of someone’s consent. Even in instances where the LRA commanders claimed that they were forced to marry the women, I do not think they were forced to sleep with the women. I have heard stories of LRA commanders who were given women, but they stayed with them without sexually abusing them. He who slept with a woman did so by choice, and the idea to dismiss this charge is total rubbish. I do not see any [reason] why the defense even had to make that application.”

Robert, a community leader in Abok, highlighted the significance of ensuring victims of SGBV get justice because of the health complications they continue to suffer following their return to the community.

“Women suffered seriously. In Abok we have women who are suffering from health complications like fistula because of the abuse they suffered in the bush. So prosecuting SGBV crimes are very important. If the charges are dismissed as requested by Ongwen’s lawyers, then the next step is to ensure that these women get medical assistance at the very least. Dismissing these charges will not take away the fact that the crimes happened, and we have victims,” said Robert.

While most of the charges against Ongwen are location specific, the crimes relating to SGBV and forced conscription of child soldiers are considered to have taken place throughout northern Uganda. For James, a civil society representative from Teso, prosecuting SGBV crimes is one the avenues through which victims outside the case locations of Odek, Pajule, Abok, and Lukodi can get justice and recognition.

“They say that SGBV crimes and the conscription of child-soldiers cuts across all the regions affected by LRA conflicts. Removing them means that they have narrowed the case to the four locations of Odek, Lukodi, Abok, and Pajule. The only hope for victims in other regions, like Teso, is these other charges, which are not location specific, and it would cause a dilemma to the greater north. Why should they remove SGBV crimes when they were committed?”

Hellen, another civil society representative, also highlighted the relevance of SGBV crimes.

“SGBV crimes are relevant because severe torture was inflicted on women and girls as a weapon of war, and yet they were not active combatants. So, I think the judges were right in not dismissing the charges against Ongwen,” she said.

Chris Ongom, another civil society representative from Lango who heads an organization called Uganda Victim’s Foundation (UVF), described the proposal to dismiss SGBV charges as a disgrace to female victims.

“From the perspective of a victim and of someone who has worked with victims, I think it is an insult to women and young girls who were sexually abused,” said Ongom. “This is not a question of whether or not SGBV crimes were committed by the LRA. It is common knowledge that it happened. So anyone who was a commander and commanded a group of soldiers who committed SGBV should be held accountable. The female victims are there, and they returned to the community.”

With the defense motion being dismissed, it is now up to the judges to decide whether or not Ongwen himself will be held accountable for SGBV crimes and whether victims beyond Odek, Pajule, Abok, and Lukodi will see some measure of justice.

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.