Ongwen’s Trial has Highlighted SGBV Crimes, Says Gender Activist in Uganda

Sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) crimes have featured in the trial of Dominic Ongwen that is currently ongoing before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Nancy Apiyo is a gender practitioner who has worked with female returnees of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to facilitate their rehabilitation and reintegration into the community. Working under the auspices of the Justice and Reconciliation Project (JRP) between 2010 and 2015, Nancy oversaw the rehabilitation of several former abductees. In this interview, conducted by Lino Owor Ogora on behalf of the International Justice Monitor, she offers her perspectives on the gender dimensions that have emerged in Ongwen’s trial. While Nancy credits the trial for a positive attempt to highlight SGBV crimes, she also points out that more rehabilitation and recovery programs are needed to help survivors overcome the challenges they continue to face in their daily lives.

Ongwen is a former commander of the LRA who is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in the former IDP camps of Lukodi, Pajule, Odek, and Abok in northern Uganda. His trial at the ICC, which began in 2016, is now in advanced stages, with closing arguments scheduled for this March. SGBV crimes, including rape and sexual slavery, form part of the charges Ongwen is battling before the court.

Below are Nancy Apiyo’s perspectives on Ongwen’s trial.

Lino Owor Ogora (LO): In your opinion, how has Ongwen’s trial has gone so far? What has gone well and what are the shortfalls?

Nancy Apiyo (NA): I have been following online and through other media but not so frequently. I think the trial has gone well. At least they have tried to expedite it. Some trials can take many years to complete.

LO: As a gender practitioner who has worked with conflict-affected women, do you think the gender aspects of the trial have been properly highlighted?

NA: In my opinion, yes. In the beginning for example there were no SGBV issues, such as sexual slavery, included among Ongwen’s charges, but later they were added. Other crimes, such as rape, were also included. The fact that they added some of those gender violations is a sign that they were important.

LO: Do you think Ongwen’s trial has been effective in bringing out the gender violations suffered by women in northern Uganda during the LRA war?

NA: I think they have done a fairly good job because prosecuting SGBV crimes is not easy. I think the ICC has demonstrated goodwill to genuinely examine these crimes and highlight the gender violations.  In many cases women have to struggle to push and convince people to examine sexual violations, but in this trial the charges were amended and they were included. Of course it will never be possible to know the full scale of violations suffered in northern Uganda. It is, for example, difficult to explain forced marriage and sexual slavery within the LRA, which took on different dynamics beyond the traditional definitions provided by existing legislation. Life for women in the LRA took on a semblance of family life, and this can be a little confusing to prove as sexual slavery or forced marriage.

LO: You speak about forced marriage and sexual slavery from the perspective of women only, but in Ongwen’s trial the victims’ lawyers also tried to highlight violations against men. What is your comment on this?

NA: Sexual violence against men is also significant. Some men within the LRA were also forced to have relationships with girls against their will. As long as someone has been forced, then it ceases to become a normal situation.

LO: Generally speaking, do you think Ongwen’s trial will translate into justice for victims of SGBV?

NA: It is difficult to tell right now because the trial is still ongoing, but perhaps there will be reparations ordered by the court afterwards.

LO: Looking beyond Ongwen’s trial, what else do you think still needs to be done for the recovery of SGBV victims?

NA: The major problem with redressing SGBV crimes is the silence surrounding it. There was a time in northern Uganda when there were so many discussions around transitional justice and rehabilitation. However, that discussion has lost steam and many people think the issues in northern Uganda are resolved. The government is focusing on infrastructure development and forgetting about social [programs] like recovery for SGBV victims. I feel like northern Uganda has been forgotten in terms of programs for healing and recovery. So, it is still relevant to talk about SGBV crimes.

LO: It is generally known that Ongwen was abducted and thus bears a dual victim-perpetrator status. Do you think he should have been tried for SGBV crimes given his status?

NA: Yes, because there is individual responsibility attached to prosecuting SGBV crimes. Whereas there was also command responsibility that can be borne by people like Joseph Kony, individuals also have to be held accountable. Of course people may argue that there were other dynamics, like Ongwen’s abduction. These dynamics can also be examined during sentencing if indeed he was forced to commit SGBV crimes, but he should not be let off the hook completely. Whereas there are calls for forgiveness and reconciliation, people should also be held accountable. We cannot simply say we shall not hold Ongwen accountable because he was abducted. There should be some remorse and some level of acknowledgement that SGBV crimes were committed.

LO: There are some SGBV victims in northern Uganda, including one of Ongwen’s former ‘wives,’ who have expressed the opinion that he should be forgiven. What do you have to say about this?

NA: Such opinions are already evidence enough that SGBV crimes were committed. I therefore do not see how helpful such sentiments are in terms of justice for Ongwen. In my opinion, many women who came to accept LRA commanders as their husbands were affected by the Stockholm syndrome. They came to accept their abductors and even felt sympathy and love for them. That is evidence enough that actually SGBV crimes took place.

LO: Considering the possibility that Ongwen may one day return to the community in northern Uganda, what would you recommend for reconciling him with victims of SGBV?

NA: It would require the use of alternative justice mechanisms, such as traditional justice, to complement the court processes. The traditional chiefs, elders, and other local leaders in northern Uganda have a role to play in ensuring that his reintegration is successful. Ongwen’s trial does not mean that everything must be left to the ICC. There are other former LRA commanders living peacefully among the community in northern Uganda. Actually, if Ongwen serves a sentence it would also be helpful for his reintegration into the community because people will feel like something was done. That will help to appease the victims. But if he is completely acquitted, that will not go down well with victims.

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.