Almost fifteen years ago, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Dominic Ongwen. Ten years later, he became the only member of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) to be surrendered to The Hague. After years of life as a rebel in the bush of northern Uganda and neighbouring states, Ongwen presented himself before judges, suited-and-booted in the pristine, glass-encased courtroom of the ICC. For the next five years, the former child soldier was prosecuted on multiple charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the same crimes that were perpetrated against him when the LRA abducted and forcibly conscripted him into the rebel group. This week, as Uganda recovers from weeks of electoral violence, Judges at the ICC will issue their verdict in Ongwen trial.
Ongwen’s life and his trial have affected numerous constituencies communities. His trial has been a testing ground for atrocity crimes never before prosecuted at the ICC. Scholars, lawyers, and journalists have pondered over the ethics of prosecuting someone who was himself a victim of atrocities. They have asked how the fact that he could not have perpetrated international crimes had they not been first perpetrated against him should be taken into consideration by the ICC and by those sitting in judgement of him. Others have repeatedly stressed that ICC justice in Uganda is deeply one-sided, focused only on the LRA and not on well-document atrocities of the Government of Uganda or its military, the Uganda People’s Defence Forces.
For the Court itself, Ongwen’s case is tremendously important. It is the only case from northern Uganda that the Prosecutor has brought to trial, almost two decades after opening first opening an investigation into the situation there. It is also one of only a handful of ICC cases that have reached a verdict.
Above all, Ongwen and the trial he has faced has impacted on the people and communities where he lived and where his alleged crimes were perpetrated. Those people and communities have complex views on the impact of Ongwen on their lives and sophisticated takes on the costs and benefits of an ICC trial of Ongwen, the child soldier-turned-rebel commander.
Readers may recall that, back in 2016, JiC held an online symposium on Dominic Ongwen and the prosecution of child soldiers. The symposium explored Ongwen’s life and time as an LRA commander, how his trial fit into dominant narratives regarding the war in northern Uganda, the ways in which his trial reflected ongoing efforts to achieve justice in northern Uganda, whether Ongwen’s past was relevant to his prosecution at the ICC, Ongwen’s status as a victim and a perpetrator, the ‘shifting narratives’ about child soldiers in ICC prosecutions, and how the Prosecutor should communicate the ethical and political dilemma of prosecuting a former child soldier for international crimes.
With the 4 February verdict looming, JiC is very excited to launch a new online blog symposium on the life and trials of Dominic Ongwen. Running over the next few days, the symposium will feature blog posts delving into untold stories about Ongwen’s life, the mysticism of the LRA and how this was addressed by the ICC, an insider account of outreach efforts by the Court in areas affected by LRA violence, and numerous posts exploring the verdict itself, including what legal novelties and issues it raises for international criminal law, what precedents it establishes, and how it will be received in northern Uganda and beyond.
The symposium will feature a brilliant cast of writers who have intimate knowledge of the LRA, northern Uganda, and the Ongwen trial. They include, Kjell Anderson, Sarah Kasande, Kristof Titeca, Anushka Sehmi, Paul Bradfield, Maria Kamara, Mark Drumbl, Elise Keppler and Jo Becker. Should you be inspired by their contributions, get in touch; JiC is always happy to consider your voice too.
Posts so far include:
Dominic Ongwen: “It is very difficult to balance all that”, by Kjell Anderson
‘Getting’ an Unforgettable Gettable: The Trial of Dominic Ongwen, by Mark A. Drumbl
Litany of Horrors by LRA Leader: Ongwen Was No ‘Puppet on A String’, by Elise Keppler
Beyond the Ongwen Verdict: Justice for Government Atrocities in Uganda, by Sarah Kihika Kasande
The moral and legal correctness of Dominic Ongwen’s conviction, by Paul Bradfield
As with every symposium, our goal is to create an open and honest dialogue within a forum that respects the opinions of all participants. I therefore welcome your thoughts and reflections, and thank you for tuning in!