Ongwen trial: Dividing discussions on accountability in Uganda

Lino Owor Ogora, International Justice Monitor
In northern Uganda, intense debate surrounds the question of whether the government of Uganda or the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) bears greater responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the two-decade conflict. The trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the LRA, currently underway at the International Criminal Court (ICC), has become a focal point for discussions on accountability. In this article for the IJ Monitor, Lino Owor Ogora reflects some of the views heard in those discussions, based on questions put to civil society organization (CSO) representatives and community members.

Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in attacks on camps for people displaced by the conflict in northern Uganda. The attacks took place between 2003 and 2004 in the camps of Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi.

It is, however, a well-known fact that Ugandan government forces also committed crimes during the two-decade conflict that rocked northern Uganda. Community members and CSO representatives who expressed their views for this article frequently cited acts of arbitrary killings, torture, looting, and sexual and gender based violence committed by government forces in northern Uganda. As one human rights activist based in Gulu summarized, “All the crimes that Dominic Ongwen has been charged with, the government soldiers should be equally charged with.”

When asked for their opinion about whether the government of Uganda or the LRA bore the greatest responsibility for crimes committed in northern Uganda, interviewees gave varied responses. Some argued that the government should carry the greatest blame because it had the mandate to protect its citizens and prevent the commission of crimes.

“The government holds the blame because the constitution provides that the role of the government is to provide the security and protect the people and property. This does not mean that the rebels are not to be held responsible for the crimes or acts of human right violations, because whatever their grievances, they should not have targeted civilians,” said a human rights activist.

“The government carries more blame because it is the government’s responsibility to protect the people in the country. But the government failed to grant protection to the people of northern Uganda. The government also had all the responsibility to end the war but it failed,” said a CSO activist.

Another CSO activist said, “The government was responsible for protecting the citizens of this country, but they instead killed them and they should be answerable for that. There should be equality in handling criminal cases by the ICC. All those who committed crimes in northern Uganda should be made accountable.”

Other people believed that the LRA bore the greater blame because of the gruesome nature of atrocities committed against civilians.

“Much as the government carries a big portion of the blame, the LRA leader Joseph Kony carries the greatest blame since he decided to start the war, thereby leading to all the crimes in northern Uganda” said a former LRA abductee.

In the opinion of many respondents, both the government and LRA are equally to blame. As one prominent religious leader and peace activist in northern Uganda summed it up, “In the situation of northern Uganda, both the government and the LRA have to be blamed and held accountable and responsible for their actions against humanity.”

Respondents were also asked whether they thought the ICC was being fair by focusing only on the LRA, and not the government, as demonstrated by Ongwen’s trial. A majority of the respondents did not believe that that the ICC was being fair.

A human rights activist based in Gulu said, “To me, in the name of justice, if there is sufficient evidence to prosecute the government for similar offenses then the ICC should do so. If, in their wisdom, they did not find sufficient evidence to prosecute the government, then it will be right. But if they do not prosecute because they are in fear of the government then that is very unfortunate.”

“The ICC is not being fair by prosecuting only the LRA, yet the truth on the ground is that both parties committed crimes in northern Uganda,” said a former abductee.

A civil society representative from eastern Uganda said, “To level the ground, the ICC should have also prosecuted some people from the government. However, this would need to be specific to commanders who committed crimes during the war. This would make people feel that justice is prevailing as both sides are brought to book.”

Asked why they thought the ICC had not prosecuted any government soldiers to date, the respondents cited a variety of reasons. One CSO representative opined that the ICC had no choice in the matter because of its limited jurisdiction. “Although it is unfair, we should remember the mandate of the ICC which limits the scope of crimes to be investigated to after the year 2002. For me, I think it is already a positive step by the ICC to prosecute one of the five top [LRA] commanders,” he said.

Many respondents cited the principle of state cooperation, enshrined in the Rome Statute, as limiting investigations of government actions. Article 86 of the statute stipulates, “States parties shall, in accordance with the provisions of this statute, cooperate fully with the Court in its investigation and prosecution of crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court.” Some respondents therefore reasoned that the ICC’s independence was compromised by the fact that it was reliant on the cooperation of the Ugandan government.

As stated by one CSO representative, “Uganda as a state should be the one to refer the case of its soldiers to the ICC. So if the government has not referred the case of its soldiers, then there is no way the ICC can prosecute them.”

Another added, “The government signed an agreement to cooperate with the ICC but the government has taken advantage of this to avoid prosecution from the ICC.”

In the words of another, “I think the agreement that was signed by the ICC and the government makes the government safe from prosecution. However, in the future reality will have to be faced by the ICC given that many people still blame the government. It is just a matter of time.”

In criticizing the limitation of the ICC’s jurisdiction, a human rights activist said, “Unfortunately the ICC says it does not try crimes that were committed before it was created. This is not the essence of justice because it does not matter when the crime was committed. If you are for justice, the perpetrator should be punished whether a crime is committed now or in the future. It is just like saying let us not talk about the crimes previously committed which are very wrong.”

A prominent religious leader and peace activist based in northern Uganda summarized, “Well they say power respects power. So at the moment the government is in power and the ICC has no power over the government even if it wants to prosecute. The most common example is where Bashir of Sudan refused to report to the ICC.”

Asked whether Ugandan government forces who committed crimes should also be held accountable by the ICC, many people replied in the affirmative.

A human rights activist said, “Yes why not? If it is in the constitution that the role of the government is to protect the life and property of citizens, then did the government really perform that role to their best expectation or are there incidences where they failed?”

“The government should be held responsible but individual perpetrators are the ones who should be made accountable and not the entire government, just like the five top commanders of the LRA were identified and handed over to the ICC,” said a CSO activist from eastern Uganda.

Asked if they see other alternatives to the ICC for holding the government of Uganda accountable, the respondents gave various suggestions, with some suggesting the use of domestic courts in Uganda such as the International Crimes Division (ICD).

“They can be handled by domestic courts in Uganda provided there will be transparency, no corruption, and fairness,” said one CSO representative.

Another said, “They can be prosecuted in the courts of Uganda and if found guilty, they should be imprisoned and punished so that the rest of them who might think of committing the same crimes can be deterred. If they are left unpunished, it will encourage the rest to commit similar crimes.”

Ongwen’s trial has attracted mixed reactions from people in Uganda regarding whether or not it is fair. The above views demonstrate the strong convictions that people have, particularly regarding crimes committed by government of Uganda soldiers during the conflict. They also demonstrate that regardless of the outcome of Ongwen’s trial, the population in northern Uganda will continue calling for accountability for all of those who committed crimes.

Ongwen: Punish or pardon


About the author

Lino Owor Ogora is a peace-building practitioner who has worked with victims of conflict in northern Uganda 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.


This article was originally published in the International Justice Monitor