Thursday, 15 December 2016

An ‘Opportunity of a Lifetime’ for Community Leaders from Northern Uganda

On December 6, the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) started in The Hague. Ongwen is accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in former internally displaced persons’ camps of Odek, Lukodi, Pajule, and Abok, in northern Uganda. Ongwen has been in detention since January 2016 when he surrendered to the Séléka rebels in the Central Africa Republic and was transferred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to await trial.

To bolster victim participation, the ICC field office, with support from the Danish Embassy in Uganda, mobilized and sponsored a delegation of ten community representatives to attend the opening of Ongwen’s trial.

The delegation was led by His Highness Rwot David Onen Acana, the Paramount Chief of Acholi; accompanied by Archbishop John Baptist Odama, the Archbishop of Gulu Archdiocese; Bishop Nelson Onono Onweng, the retired Bishop of the Diocese of Northern Uganda; Ambrose Oola, the Prime Minister of Ker Kwaro Acholi; and myself as the founder and director of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives (FJDI), a non-governmental organization based in northern Uganda.

Among the delegation also were five community representatives from Lukodi, Pajule, Abok, and Odek.

As part of the visit, the participants not only had the opportunity to witness the commencement of Ongwen’s trial at the court’s new premises, but also met and exchanged ideas with representatives of the ICC. Meetings were held with the Presidency and Judicial Division, the Office of the Prosecutor, the Registry, as well as the parties and participants involved in the trial of Ongwen.

In a statement issued while in The Hague, the delegation noted that “the case of Dominic Ongwen remains very important to us because it is a milestone in defining one way in the attempt to secure justice and accountability for the people of Northern Uganda, and ultimately to help people reconcile with their past and move towards peace.”

Many people in northern Uganda have on several occasions expressed the importance of ensuring that victims follow proceedings as an important aspect of victim participation. The ICC is the first international criminal justice court in history to allow victims to share their views and concerns during all stages of the proceedings through their legal representatives, which is enshrined in both the Rome Statute and Rules of Procedure and Evidence. It was therefore not surprising when all the community representatives were unanimous in expressing their joy at being able to travel to The Hague for this important occasion.

As Esther, from Pajule noted, “I am privileged to have travelled and confirmed with my own eyes that the ICC in fact exists. I saw Ongwen in the court, and this means we have not been told lies about his trial. Even if not all people were able to come, they have at least been represented by us.”

As Justin from Lukodi community said, “We were able to see Ongwen in the court. We saw that he was well dressed and he was treated with respect. The court also gave him time to speak.”

Patrick, a community representative from Odek said, “When I heard that few people had been selected I could not believe it. We saw Ongwen with our eyes even if we did not touch him. We saw the lawyers and interacted with them. This is an opportunity of a lifetime.”

As a result of various meetings held with different sections of the ICC, the participants were also able to get a better understanding of how the court functions, a factor that was also instrumental in increasing their understanding appreciation of the trial process. As Esther from Pajule said, “We were happy to hear about how the court works and how victims and witnesses are protected. This gives us confidence that our relatives who are participating will be protected.”

Justin from Lukodi agreed with the above opinion, noting that, “The functioning of the court was made clear to us. We toured the court and met with various representatives. This made us to believe that there is transparency at the ICC.”

The community representatives were also immensely impressed by the new structure that houses the ICC premises. Although many of the participants were overwhelmed by the security protocols in place, they thought the facilities contained in the building were excellent, including the courtroom and office spaces. As Justin from Lukodi said, “The setup of the court is very good. The courtroom is set in such a way that visitors can follow proceedings without interfering with the work of the judges and lawyers. This is not the case in Uganda where someone from the audience can easily reach the judges and lawyers and even attack them.  The equipment being used is also very good, and we do not have this in Uganda.”

In addition to the delegation from Uganda, there were many other visitors also present in the public gallery for the first day of the hearing, including many students, journalists, and researchers. This is a matter that did not go down well with one of the community representatives from Abok who said, “Students and journalists were the majority in the court. This makes us to think that the court is being taken as a learning opportunity. There should have been more community and victims’ representatives.”

Over the course of two days, the community representatives attended the court sessions and watched as the prosecution team made its opening remarks. Some of the representatives later remarked that the gruesome pictures of the killings in their communities that were displayed by the prosecution evoked strong memories in them. In a comment that did not go well over with Archbishop Odama and Bishop Onono, Francisco Cox, one of the victims representatives, noted in his opening remarks that “[i]t is usually people that did not suffer consequences of Ongwen’s crimes that ask for forgiveness.” Otherwise all the community representatives felt that the hearing had gone well.

It can be concluded that the initiative by the ICC field office and Danish Embassy in Uganda achieved its intended impact of promoting community participation and increased the community representatives’ understanding and appreciation of the ICC. Furthermore, community representatives will be expected to engage in public outreach and share their experiences back home.  However, as noted by one participant, to increase impact the court should consider bringing a larger delegation of people living in communities affected by the alleged crimes of the accused.

Ongwen’s trial resumes on January 16, 2017. International Justice Monitor will be following the trial, and regular updates will be posted to the LRA Trials page.

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.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Statement by Ugandan cultural, religious, community and civil society leaders attending the opening trial of Dominic Ongwen at the ICC in The Hague Netherlands – 5-8 December 2016 -

Statement by Ugandan cultural, religious, community and civil society leaders attending the opening trial of Dominic Ongwen at the ICC in The Hague Netherlands
– 5-8 December 2016 -

From 5 – 8 December, we attended the opening of the trial of Dominic Ongwen in The Hague, The Netherlands as representatives of our communities in Northern Uganda Led by His Highness Rwot David Onen Acana the Paramount Chief of Acholi, accompanied by Archbishop John Baptist Odama the Archbishop of Gulu Archdiocese, we not only had the opportunity to witness the commencement of the trial of Dominic Ongwen in the Court’s new premises but also met and exchanged ideas with representatives of the International Criminal Court (ICC): Presidency and Chambers, Office of the Prosecutor, Registry, and the parties and participants involved in the trial of Dominic Ongwen.

Dominic Ongwen has come before the ICC for trial following an indictment for crimes against humanity and war crimes he is alleged to have committed as a senior commander of the LRA.
Over the years during and after the conflict in Northern Uganda, cultural, religious, community and civic leaders have been the centerpiece for peace and reconciliation. They were instrumental in the outcomes of the Juba peace process. Today, the case of Dominic Ongwen remains very important to us because it is a milestone in defining one way in the attempt to secure justice and accountability for the people of Northern Uganda, and ultimately to help people reconcile with their past and move towards peace.

As leaders and representatives of various groups and interests in the Acholi region, we note that various grave crimes were committed in Northern Uganda during the time the LRA was active in Uganda; the nature of the crimes committed violated traditional, Ugandan and international law and therefore warranted action against perpetrators in terms of securing justice for the victims and holding the perpetrators accountable. With the ICC process, we believe that matters related to such crimes will be adjudicated.

Beyond Dominic Ongwen’s specific case, the Acholi people still have to contend with the broader question of justice and accountability arising from the conflict. The fact that the LRA is still out there obliges us to remain focused on the broader issues of peace reconciliation, justice and accountability. Indeed other mechanisms do exist in Uganda that have been extensively used in handling matters relating to obtaining accountability from perpetrators and securing justice for victims in the LRA conflict, including the law in Uganda and the traditional law norms, values and practices of the Acholi people. Though mechanisms and certain definitions may differ, the Acholi justice system gives a broader context and definition to questions of accountability and justice which is hinged primarily on restorative justice other than a punitive one.

Since justice is a long process especially when it is searching for truth, we call upon our people to allow the judicial process and those who wish to testify to come and do so without any fear of reprisals. We also urge the international community and the Government of Uganda to remain focused on the wider question of transitional justice in Northern Uganda which remains largely unattended to and is grossly affecting many lives.

This trial is at its beginning and we hope to see it continue smoothly and be beneficial to the victims of Northern Uganda.

We express our gratitude to the Danish Embassy in Uganda for its financial assistance and to the ICC for having planned and coordinated the visit.   

Rwot David Onen Achana
Archbishop John Baptist Odama
Bishop Onono Onweng
Olaa Ambose
Innocent Olwoc
Patrick Sila Lakwonyero
Lino Owor Ogora
Betty Piloya
Esther Aol
Justine Ochan

Monday, 5 December 2016

Hopes and Expectations: Perceptions of Victims and Civil Society on the Eve of Ongwen’s Trial

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.