A few days ago a former commander in the notorious Ugandan armed group the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) appeared before a Pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Netherlands, following his capture in the Central African Republic. Dominic Ongwen is accused of multiple counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including murder, enslavement and directing attacks against civilians, while he was alleged to have been a commander in the LRA. These particular crimes are alleged to have happened in 2004 in Northern Uganda as part of the long running conflict between the LRA and the government of Uganda. Although human rights organisations allege that he has committed many more crimes. The ICC has been investigating the case since 2003 when the Ugandan government referred the situation in Northern Uganda to the Court.
The LRA emerged in the late 1980s in Northern Uganda in a period of political and spiritual upheaval in the country following President Yoweri Museveni’s coming to power at the front of the National Resistance Movement. The LRA and its leader, Joseph Kony, soon became notorious for attacks on civilians, abductions and use of child soldiers. As the Ugandan army gained ground against the group it spilled into neighbouring countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic and what is today South Sudan, exacerbating conflict in those countries and continuing its attacks and abductions. Successive attempts to sign peace agreements between the Ugandan government and the LRA have failed. The LRA itself has not held territory in Uganda since the mid-2000s and has been pursued by an African Union Task Force supported by American military forces.
The complex nature of the conflict, the LRA and the history of the accused present a number of challenges for the ICC and for all seeking to uphold principles of justice after conflict. First of all, the allegations to be examined by the ICC only cover the LRA’s crimes in Uganda. However, the LRA is accused of committing crimes across several neighbouring countries, as mentioned above. There is a question over whether or how justice should be delivered for victims of the LRA across central Africa. Even if the ICC did wish to address crimes in these countries the ongoing security situation and conflict in these bordering regions, involving a number of armed groups, would further complicate practical efforts to investigate crimes and arrest perpetrators.
In addition to the problems of ignoring crimes that have taken place beyond Uganda there are also allegations that the Court is ignoring human rights violations carried out by the Ugandan army. There are numerous allegations of rape, murder and beatings of civilians in protected camps, perpetrated by the soldiers who were supposed to protect them. The ICC has only issued arrest warrants for LRA commanders and has not sought to bring Ugandan military personnel to trial. This has caused concern for many citizens in Northern Uganda. It is possible that, once the trial starts, discussion of the army’s role in Northern Uganda may arise in either court testimony or in commentary on it by the media, human rights groups and other political actors.
The biggest challenge the ICC will face in trying Dominic Ongwen is that he is a former child soldier. He was abducted at the age of 10 by the LRA and rose to become a commander by the age of 18. Dominic Ongwen is therefore both a victim and a perpetrator of the brutal violence associated with the conflict. The Court will have to try and deal with how much his early victimhood should absolve him of later crimes. His defence lawyers are likely to plead this argument and ask for leniency from the court. This issue will further complicate what is already a complex case. With the ICC still in relative infancy given the number of cases it has heard, many observers will watch with interest to see how the Ongwen case plays out. The challenges of addressing the aftermath of cross border conflict, government violations of human rights and child combatants are not unique to the conflict which began in Northern Uganda. In the Commonwealth post-conflict justice and reconciliation are crucial issues for places as diverse as Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Papua New Guinea. Against the myriad of different justice mechanisms used across the world the ICC will have a challenge with the Ongwen case to prove it is capable of being a respected global dispenser of justice.
Photo by Josh Zakary