Views from Uganda: Lords' Resistance Army commander Ongwen trial opens

Viewing of the Ongwen trial at an ICC outreach event in Gulu, Uganda © ICC-CPI
Lino Owor Ogora
With the opening of the ICC trial of alleged Lord's Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen this week, the International Justice (IJ) Monitor has consulted with community members and select representatives of civil society organizations (CSOs) working in northern Uganda to get an understanding of their expectations of the trial. What they found was a mixture of excitement and anxiety in equal measure.

The trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is due to start Tuesday at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, with opening statements from the prosecution and the victims’ representatives.  Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, allegedly committed in the former IDP camps of Odek, Lukodi, Pajule, and Abok in northern Uganda.

In light of this, the International Justice (IJ) Monitor  conducted a brief consultation with community members and select representatives of civil society organizations (CSOs) working in northern Uganda to get an understanding of what their expectations about the trial was.

The overall reactions were mixed. While many of them were happy that the trial was finally getting underway, they also expressed reservations about certain aspects. Even though all the respondents who were consulted expressed their support for the trial, many still stressed that the trial is not a comprehensive solution for solving post-conflict challenges that continue to exist in northern Uganda.

As Francis Opio from Grassroots Reconciliation Group (GRG) said, “Stating whether the trial will be a good thing for bringing justice to people in northern Uganda would be relative. It should be noted that when it comes to rebuilding relationships, an aspect that is very important in our culture, the ICC is not helpful.”

Expressing a similar view, Chris Ongom, the Director of the Uganda Victims’ Foundation (UVF) said, “The trial of Ongwen will address a very tiny part of the justice. It will send a signal to international community that Uganda is committed to fighting impunity. However, the suffering and causes of the war in the northern is rooted in the structural systems of governance so this trial won’t bring total justice to the people.”

In regard to the above, some of the participants who were consulted suggested complementary measures such as the use of traditional justice mechanisms for the promotion of reconciliation and the pursuit of accountability domestically.

Another expectation that was frequently mentioned by respondents who were consulted was the need for a fair trial based on evidence and the importance of ensuring the impartiality and neutrality of the court. Rosalba Oywa, who heads the People’s Voice for Peace (PVP) said, “I will keep my fingers crossed. I think they will penalize Ongwen if he is found guilty and if the verdict is based on evidence.”

James Engemu, a human rights activist from Teso sub-region said, “I expect that the trial will be a true hearing and that the verdict will rely on real evidence not purported issues. The judgment should be very impartial.”

Hellen Acham, a peace-building practitioner from Lango sub-region said, “As far as the hearing is concerned, we are looking forward to the impartiality of the court. The victims must not be intimidated, and the court must administer justice. It should not end up like the Kenyan one where some of the victims were threatened.”

In addition to the above, most respondents also expressed the need for a speedy trial in order to ensure justice for the victims. As Nathan Ebiru, the head of the Amuria District Development Association (ADDA) said, “Being a victim myself and a person working for the victims in Uganda, I expect the trial to be expedited in favor of victims.”

All in all, most people who were consulted agreed that the ultimate determinants of whether or not justice will have been attained at the conclusion of the trial will be the victims themselves. In the words of Oywa, “It shall depend on the victims…Victims are the ones who are key in saying whether they are satisfied or not.”

With the ICC investigations focused mainly on four case locations linked to crimes allegedly committed by Ongwen (Lukodi, Odek, Abok, and Pajule), IJ Monitor asked participants whether they believed that the trial would serve as a mechanism for brining justice to all victims in northern Uganda, including areas outside the Acholi sub-region. There were mixed reactions to this question. Some respondents believed that the limited geographic scope did not matter and would still result in justice for all victims in northern Uganda. “If the trial is based on critical evidence, victims of Ongwen’s crimes will get healing in Teso, Lango, and Acholi. If the victims see Ongwen [acquitted] and walking free, they will get angry,” said Engemu.

In the words of Acham, “In one way or another, the victims will feel that there is someone concerned with their suffering. It will bring justice to northern Uganda. Even the current prevailing peace in northern Uganda is being enjoyed because of the indictment of Ongwen.”

Other respondents, however, believed that the current scope of investigations excluded victims from other sub-regions. According to Ebiru, “There are quite a number of victims who have not been reached in Teso sub-region. The areas that have been identified in the charge sheet do not extend to Teso. I don’t see much hope in this. But what every victim and community wants is that Dominic Ongwen must be made accountable for his crime.”

Respondents who were consulted also expressed expectations regarding victim participation. Many reiterated the need to ensure that victims follow proceedings. It was the expectation of many that the trial would be broadcast live. As Opio from GRG said, “Live screening of the trial process will allow victims to follow the process giving them ground to react to some of the issues when called upon.”

In anticipation of this demand, the ICC field office in Uganda has set up viewing centers in the four communities of Lukodi, Pajule, Odek, and Abok. According to Maria Mabinty Kamara, the ICC Field Outreach Coordinator for Kenya and Uganda, “A viewing center will also be opened in Coorom, the birthplace of Ongwen to provide access of the judicial processes to his family members, his relatives, and clan members.” Additional viewing centers have also been set up in Gulu town and in Kampala to enable people outside the affected communities to participate.

The ICC field office has also made arrangements to web stream proceedings from the opening of the trial in the Acholi language and on two radio stations in northern Uganda. According to Kamara, “For the first time, the court has provided the options for the proceedings to be web streamed in Acholi. This means that followers can actually select from the list of languages and follow their preference. So Mega FM Radio and Gulu FM Radio will broadcast live from the Acholi channel. It has not happened so far in other cases.”

At all these centers the ICC field office has provided the equipment necessary for conducting live streaming broadcasts from The Hague and has conducted outreach to sensitize and encourage many people to go to these centers, which are open to the public free of charge. However, it is not known whether the ICC will conduct live broadcasts throughout the trial itself.

Findings from the consultation also revealed that respondents still strongly believe that the physical presence of victims during hearings is important for victim participation in the trial. As Acham said, “Victim participation is very important. There will come a moment where some victims will request to attend hearings by themselves. Since there are very many victims, election of people to represent them is important.”

According to Ongom of the UVF, “The court says that they don’t have money to facilitate victims [to attend the trial]. It sends doubt to the victims, because the small window of hope is being narrowed. The victims should have been air lifted to attend the trial, if truly [the court] values the victims.”

In anticipation of this demand, the ICC field office, with support from the Danish Embassy in Uganda, chose 10 influential representatives from the affected community to attend the opening of the trial. In a press briefing conducted in Uganda, Kamara said, “These people will attend and follow the proceedings at The Hague so that they explain what they will have witnessed upon return. This will help build trust of the community in the ICC processes.”

All in all, respondents expected to be kept informed during the entire duration of the trial and not simply at the beginning or at the end. As Ebiru said, “I recommend frequent consultation with the victims throughout the trial and provision of feedback to them on a frequent basis. Victims should know how far the case has gone and must be kept informed at all times.”

In addition to the above, a few respondents also expressed the need to ensure that victims and witnesses are protected. In the words of Oywa, “Participation is important to the public, and the ICC has worked towards ensuring that this happens. But I am not sure what is being done towards victims and witnesses’ protection. This trial is sensitive and can put the victims at risk which would not be a good thing.”

A final expectation that was expressed by all respondents was the need to ensure that reparations are implemented at the conclusion of the trial in the event that Ongwen is found guilty.

In the words of Engemu from Teso, “If Ongwen is convicted, then the court should provide reparations for the victims. Victims are in need and reparations must be expedited in order to provide justice. The Trust Fund for Victims should play its role to the vulnerable victims.” It is clear from community members, as can be seen in previous blog posts, that reparations will be central in determining the success of Ongwen’s trial.

In conclusion, as presented by the views expressed above, the trial of Ongwen has generated excitement and anxiety in equal measures. It is clear that while many people want a speedy and fair trial, they also believe that important aspects, such as victim participation and reparation, must be addressed if the trial is to be viewed as successful.

Lino Owor Ogora is the Director and 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.

This post originally appeared on the International Justice Monitor, which is a project of the Open Society Justice Initiative.