Victim, perpetrator, son? The other side of the ICC’s Ongwen trial.
The trial of a former LRA commander is meant to ensure justice. But many in northern Uganda are sceptical.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) resumed its trial today against Dominic Ongwen, a former child soldier turned commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).
At the court in The Hague, lawyer Krispus Ayena Odongo delivered the defence’s opening statement by describing the complications of the case, providing a history of Uganda’s political climate since independence, and arguing for Ongwen’s innocence as a victim within these complex dynamics. “Never before has the world witnessed a case so peculiar,” he remarked.
This is indeed a landmark case in a number of respects. To begin with, Ongwen is the only one of the top five LRA commanders indicted by the Court to face trial. Secondly, he is the first former child soldier to be tried by the ICC, a complexity that has raised much debate about the line between victim and perpetrator. “One cannot be a victim and, in the same circumstances which led to his victimisation, also be a perpetrator,” said Odongo.
For these reasons, the trial is being watched around the world. Yet the case is also being followed closely in northern Uganda, where the LRA carried out the majority of its insurgency activities for over two decades. Here, however, feelings about the case often diverge with international opinion – on a number of fronts.
“He feared for his life”
Ongwen was first indicted by the ICC in 2005 after the Ugandan government invited the Court to conduct an investigation into the LRA situation. He was arrested in 2015 and now faces 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder and sexual slavery committed.
Ongwen has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. Part of his defence relies on the fact that he was one of approximately 30,000 children abducted by the LRA between 1986 and 2009. He asserts that he was captured aged 12 and was abused, indoctrinated, and conditioned to believe he was carrying out God’s work by cleansing and purifying the nation.
In delivering the prosecution’s case in 2017-18, ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda acknowledged this context and the trauma Ongwen underwent. But she stressed that the former senior commander is being tried for acts he committed as an adult.
In northern Uganda, however, many can relate to Ongwen’s experience and defence. Speaking to over thirty former child soldiers, many emphasised that under the extreme circumstances of abduction, the priority becomes survival which can entail being obedient at all costs.
“I think [Ongwen] should be sent back home,” said one formerly abducted girl soldier. “When you’re young and you’re trained to do something, you do it. Otherwise you are scared for your safety. That is why, if he did anything, he only [did so because] he feared for his life.”
She was keen to point out that it is the state’s responsibility to protect children from forced abductions in the first place, which she says the Ugandan government failed to do.
“The government should have protected him, just like it should have protected all of us”, she added.
Justice for whom?
In northern Uganda, the belief that Ongwen should be sent home is not limited to former child soldiers. Many say that he should not be facing trial at the ICC and believe he would be better dealt with through local justice mechanisms that emphasise restorative – rather than retributive – justice.
“Ongwen being at the ICC is about seeking justice and the need for accountability for the people of Uganda, but this is not the kind of justice that is salient for us,” said Geoffrey Omony, programme director of YOLRED, an organisation that supports former child soldiers. “A better alternative is allowing Ongwen and his community to explore restorative justice, the Mato Oput process, which is more palatable here”.
In the traditional Acholi context, the emphasis is on reconciliation and healing. This process involves seeking forgiveness and offering compensation to victims. Given the magnitude of the LRA’s crimes, compensation in Ongwen’s case would require the support of the international community and NGOs.
Across the area, there is a clear consensus that if Ongwen is to be tried it should be in Uganda. Some argue that even if he serves jail time at the ICC, he will still need to go through the local justice system to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. It is this latter process, they say, that would be truly meaningful to them.
“This is an entity which Acholi people respect,” says Omony. “For the community elders in the northern region, this is their issue. Ongwen is their son. They can deal with him.”
Fears of instability
A final aspect of the Ongwen case that is rarely examined in coverage of the trial is its political resonance in Uganda. Years after the end of the conflict, there are clear political, economic and social divides between the north and rest of the country. There are widespread feelings that the region is still neglected by the state.
For many Acholi people, the prosecution of Ongwen fits into this pattern. They see the case through the lens of the north’s perceived marginalisation. They ask whether a guilty verdict for Ongwen will mean the region receives compensation and whether it will lead to similar punishments for other former child soldiers. Given the government’s amnesty for returning child soldiers, the latter possibility is highly unlikely, but these real concerns highlight the ongoing fears of many in the region.
The defence is due to provide its evidence from 1 October 2018 with a final verdict expected by end of 2019. The case is supposed to ensure accountability for vast and brutal crimes committed in the region and bring closure for tens of thousands of victims. But for many in northern Uganda, Ongwen’s trial is seen as unfair, irrelevant to their own notions of justice, and potentially the start of new concerns and anxieties.