The COVID-19 Pandemic Poses Challenges to Outreach, says ICC Official in Uganda

In the context of International Criminal Court (ICC) trials, community outreach is critical to informing and updating communities about what is transpiring in the courtrooms of The Hague and how trials are progressing. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc worldwide, one of the areas affected in Uganda is community outreach related to the trial of Dominic Ongwen, which is currently ongoing before the court.

Ongwen is on trial for crimes he is alleged to have committed as a commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005. He has been charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

The crimes prosecutors charged Ongwen with fall into three categories: attacks on camps for internally displaced persons (IDP); sexual and gender-based crimes; and conscription of child soldiers. Ongwen is alleged to have had a role in attacks on the Pajule IDP camp (October 10, 2003); the Odek IDP camp (April 29, 2004); Lukodi (May 19, 2004); and Abok (June 8, 2004). The defense, the prosecution, and the victims’ legal representatives concluded presentation of evidence in his case in March 2020.

The ICC outreach office has been active in Uganda since 2005 when the ICC first issued arrest warrants against five top commanders of the LRA. With the arrest of Ongwen in 2015 and the commencement of his trial in 2016, the ICC outreach office in Uganda has been working diligently to ensure that communities are informed of trial proceedings. The outreach sessions, however, were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic as the Ugandan government ordered a ban on public gatherings and initiated a countrywide lockdown in a bid to curb the spread of the virus. This affected public outreach in Ongwen’s case, as explained by Maria Mabinty Kamara, the ICC outreach coordinator in Uganda.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually all our public engagements in northern Uganda with victims and affected communities connected to the case of Dominic Ongwen, and other key stakeholders we interact with,” noted Kamara.  “Outreach meetings were halted following the first presidential address that issued several directives, among which public gatherings were prohibited.  Since then community outreach meetings have been indefinitely suspended: face-to-face meetings with different stakeholders such as victims’ communities, religious leaders, cultural leaders, the media, academic and legal institutions, and CSOs [civil society organizations] can no longer take place in the prevailing COVID-19 situation. The pandemic has therefore affected our community outreach activities as we knew them.”

Despite this, the ICC outreach office in Uganda has adjusted and used other options such as phone calls, SMS platforms, radio programs, and social media to reach out to the communities.

“As in the case with any effective public outreach program, we have had to consider and implement numerous flexibilities within our programming, to ensure that even during the COVID-19 crisis, our engagements with victims and affected communities remain alive,” explained Kamara. “We took time to reach out to our partners via emails, phone calls, and other communication channels, to inform them of the indefinite suspension of our community outreaches.  We revamped our SMS platform and increased our interface with the over 12,000 people that are subscribed to it. We resumed our visibility on community radio stations where we provided updates on the trial. We have further capitalized on the community volunteer structures that have formed the backbone of our community presence over the past decade.”

Kamara also noted that ICC officials have continued to conduct media interviews and respond to media inquiries on various topics that are related Ongwen trial.

With many countries, including Uganda, beginning to ease restrictions on movements, it is likely that physical community outreach sessions could be back in play soon. While Kamara could not predict when or how outreach would be conducted in the post-COVID-19 era, she noted that valuable lessons had been learned. This could lead to changes in how the court conducts outreach activities.

“None of us can confidently present a credible ‘post-COVID-19’ scenario … therefore as things stand today, we shall be guided by the relevant experts on the management of public meetings,” she said. “One thing we can state with certainty is that even in the periods after the COVID-19 scourge, the experiences and lessons learnt during this period shall ensure that our public/mass outreaches should never be exactly the same again!”

Regarding whether the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to a delay in Ongwen’s verdict, Kamara continued to be optimistic that there would be no delays.

“The press release that was issued after the presentation of closing statements indicated that the Judges will deliberate on the proceedings and, within a reasonable period, pronounce their decision on the conviction or acquittal. The Judges continue to work in order to deliver their decision without any undue delay.”

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.