Hunted for a decade for acts of ‘unimaginable brutality’: Dominic Ongwen’s trial by the ICC seems justified, but will it bring justice?

Olivia O'Malley


Local Justice and Reconciliation: Participation in mato oput ceremony in Acholi. Photo credit: Erin Baines/Justice and Reconciliation Project

Justice through Reconciliation: Participation in mato oput ceremony in Acholi. Photo credit: Erin Baines/Justice and Reconciliation Project

LRA Commander Dominic Ongwen’s surrender in January was portrayed as a long awaited step towards ‘justice’. The Lord’s Resistance Army has terrorised vast swathes of the Great Lakes Region for over twenty years killing thousands, displacing millions and forcing children to kill their families and become soldiers. Ongwen faces three counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes. His command is believed to be responsible for some of the LRA’s most vicious attacks, including the Makombo massacre in 2009 in which 345 were killed and 250 abducted during a four day rampage in North-Eastern Congo.

With Ongwen’s arrest warrant in place since 2005, the ICC will certainly use him to internationally exhibit their promise to end impunity. In a statement from The Office of the Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda asserted that Ongwen’s transferal to the court’s custody sent a firm message that the court would not stop until perpetrators ‘faced justice for their heinous crimes’. However, Ongwen’s trial is far from a simple judicial narrative. This is reflected in the further delay of his hearing until 24 January 2016, leading commentators to quip ‘they’ve got him, but can they get him?’ .It seems that the long wait for visible justice will continue.

Many welcomed the ‘success’ of finally bringing a high ranking LRA commander before the ICC. Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the UN Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict expressed hope that ‘justice and not amnesty’ would be applied and Michelle Kagari, of Amnesty International lauded the ‘end of a ten year wait for justice’. Whilst such agencies seem to believe that the expedient trial of Ongwen will bring forth expedient justice, others are less sure. Only a child himself (estimates range from 10-14) when abducted by LRA rebels, Ongwen is a paradoxical figure, at once a victim and a perpetrator who was groomed in the image of his oppressors. It is therefore a complex case for the ICC which is virulently outspoken on comprehensive and lasting justice for child soldiers.

Mark Drumbl, author of Re-imagining Child Soldiers, has argued that eagerness for expedient justice in the ‘reductionist pressures of the courtroom’ should not obscure the difficulties inherent when the lines between victim and perpetrator are ‘porous’. Drumbl calls for the need to unpack the complexities of the ‘child soldier’ and encourages a move away from simplified images of ‘a faultlessly distraught, prepubescent boy- barely able to carry weapons and pull up his socks’ as this undercuts the fact that many, like Ongwen, come of age during captivity.

Some argue that ‘the little boy who ran into rebels…could have easily remained a statistic, one of the 60,000 estimated chidren to be abducted’, whilst others attest that Ongwen is a particular case. He rose quickly through the ranks becoming a major at 18 and a brigadier at 20. But this trajectory could reflect as much his circumstances as his character. Advocates for Ongwen’s prosecution cite the ICC’s declaration that obedience is not a defence if the defendant knew that the order given was unlawful. Though Patrick Vinck of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative questions how one raised in the milieu of terror would be able to comprehend relative ‘unlawfulness’, let alone negotiate their way out of it. He argues that psychological indoctrination at a young age dissolves moral references, rendering it ‘impossible to separate the child victim from the adult perpetrator.’

Such complications raise controversial ideas of ‘collective guilt’ against Ardent’s affirmation that the criminal trial should focus on the acts of one person in the dock. But, if Ongwen is to be declared individually responsible for his actions in the LRA, secondary implications for other former rebels must be considered. Rehabilitation programmes focus on the simple message ‘it wasn’t your fault’, as many former rebels struggle to accept or be accepted in their identification as a victim. Although the statement begs the question; ‘who’s fault was it?’, one might ask how far attributing blame goes in achieving ‘justice’ for these communities. The future stability of the region necessitates the reintegration of thousands of former rebels and so, ideas of justice have to be renegotiated and re-imagined. Cultural reconciliation practices such as Mato Oput  are utilised, with education and dialogues encouraged, so as to end stigmatisation of former LRA soldiers who are now neighbours and community members.

Tellingly, the loudest calls for lenience stem from within the communities which have suffered the most. Geoffrey Onekalite, the Alero Sub-County chairperson, celebrated Ongwen’s surrender as a step towards peace in Acholi, expressing hope that it would encourage others to do the same. Acholi  religious institutions are some of the trial’s most outspoken critics. Archbishops Onono-Onweng and Odama share concerns that it may ‘undermine the North’s fragile peace’. They fear that public heavy handedness will set a dangerous precedent, acting as a deterrent to others considering surrender and thus undermining months of fragile talks with the the LRA, which could finally put an end to violence in the region. It is clear that, for many, ‘justice’ is not interpreted as one man’s trial, but rather in the assurance of peace and security in their immediate periphery. Considering this, how far will the trial of Ongwen bring about long-sought and elusive ‘justice’?

International vehicles of justice must ensure that Ongwen’s trial does not overshadow more tangible forms of justice which the Ugandan Government has hitherto failed to deliver. Research reveals that affected communities conceptualise ‘justice’ in relation to their need for financial and livelihood support to rebuild their lives after conflict. A 2014 report, ‘The Dust Has Not Yet Settled’ outlined the lived concerns of some 2,300 victims and called for the government to frame the delivery of reparations without delay. And so, we must question what kind of ‘justice’ is being sought. If it is a justice which will best affect those to whom it is entitled, perhaps the focus should be less on the trial of a former child soldier and more on the responsibility of the Ugandan Government to provide the reparations which victims call for and deserve. This will surely provide a more real and relevant ‘justice’ than an abstract declaration of guilt at The Hague.




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