Maria Mabinty Kamara joins JiC for this insider account on outreach efforts by the International Criminal Court throughout the proceedings against Dominic Ongwen. The post is part of our ongoing symposium on the life and trials of Dominic Ongwen. Maria is an ICC Outreach Officer who has worked in Uganda, Kenya, and Sierra Leone.
‘’No matter how far victims might be from the Court, the ICC endeavours to reach out and engage with them and their communities. People most affected by the crimes have the right to understand, to participate in, and to have a sense of ownership of the justice process’’.
The statement above encapsulates the International Criminal Court’s goal of establishing an Outreach Programme that engages in a constructive, sustainable, and reciprocal manner with the victims, populations and different stakeholders that are affected by the crimes under investigation and on trial. Outreach promotes access, understanding and ownership of a justice process that is otherwise considered distant and foreign among the people it is designed to serve.
The Court’s Outreach activities in Uganda commenced in 2006, creating individually simple yet collectively multifaceted channels of communication that harnessed vibrant relationships with victim communities, religious and cultural leaders, the media fraternity, the academic and legal communities and the general public in northern Uganda. As the Court seeks to fulfil its mandate to investigate and prosecute persons who have committed the most serious crimes of international concern, namely genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, it is imperative that its role and judicial activities are understood and appreciated, particularly in communities affected by the crimes under its jurisdiction. Unlike most national and local courts, the ICC is international and it is situated in The Hague, The Netherlands, which is thousands of miles away from the populations in northern Uganda that have been affected by the crimes Dominic Ongwen is accused of.
After a long and frustrating lull of up to 10 years from 2005 when the arrest warrants against senior members of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) were issued, the arrest and surrender of Ongwen to the ICC in 2015 was a welcome relief that rekindled the communities’ interest for information about the trial. Until the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020, that was demonstrated by the enthusiasm and large numbers of people that participate in outreach activities.
With all the proceedings being conducted in the ICC Courtroom in The Hague, the massive interest and participation of victims and affected communities in the trial proceedings expressed through numerous Outreach channels underscores the importance of a robust and inclusive outreach programme that ensures that the judicial proceedings are accessible, meaningful and relevant, promotes understanding of and support for the Court’s work, and manages the expectations of the victims and affected communities.
Notwithstanding the distance between the ICC in The Hague and the communities whose needs for justice and accountability are being served by the Court, our work connects the communities with the Courtroom, bringing understanding, ownership, and legitimacy of the work of the Court in the four major geographical areas in northern Uganda where the bulk of the victims reside.
In northern Uganda, our Outreach has made it possible for people living thousands of miles away from the Court to have a meaningful experience of the proceedings. Throughout the trial, we established screening centres in the twenty-five locations that are directly linked to the case and where projections of the trial are held monthly. The monthly screenings are led by community volunteers selected from among the victims and affected communities.
During important and symbolic moments of the trial, such as the opening of the trial, the opening of the presentation of evidences, and closing statements, we organised live video and radio broadcasts of the proceedings, which enabled the victim communities and the public at large to follow the proceedings, bringing the Courtroom to the populations it matters most to. In the course of my engagements with victims and affected communities from different judicial contexts, the most compelling experience of a lifetime was witnessing first-hand with concept of an ‘’ICC Courtroom in every parish’ – an adage created to summarise the access to the Courtroom created in different distant communities across northern Uganda, through our outreach initiatives.
On one such live telecast of a key judicial moment, we organised a live video projection in Gulu as part of our efforts to publicise the closing statements in that were held from 10 to 12 March 2020. The event was attended by 400 people drawn from various sections of the community – men, women, youth, the elderly, children, victims, the media, teachers, and local leaders, persons with disabilities, CSOs and other members of the general public. On the projection from the courtroom displayed on the screen, the courtroom officer from The Hague stood up to signal the arrival of the Judges.
Through an interpreter she made the call “Dano weng gu-aa malo (the Acholi translation of “All rise!”)”. This announcement blared though the public address system and, to our awe, everybody in the hall stood up in conformity, in unison, fully immersed in the proceedings and experiencing the very atmosphere of the hearings in the courtroom in The Hague.
Throughout the proceedings, with a pin-drop silence, everyone in the hall listened attentively to the final arguments presented by the prosecution, defence, and the lawyers of the victims. At the conclusion of the session, “Dano weng gu-aa malo’’ came through the speakers again and the communities obliged to the same protocol, actualizing the sentient experience of the judicial proceedings conducted in a courtroom that is situated thousands of miles away from the victims and affected communities in Gulu.
Outreach is the ‘’Face of the Court’’ in Uganda. We relay updates and information about the Court and trial proceedings to the communities mostly in the local languages of the victims’ communities to enable and facilitate constructive dialogue. This involves frequent travelling to remote villages, participating in radio and TV programs, and projecting video summaries of proceedings. Sometimes we just listen to the views, concerns and questions of the victims and respond to them. In doing so, we manage their expectations. The communities decide on the best way to engage with the Court when they are well informed about their rights under the Rome Statute, including the possibility to participate in proceedings and apply for reparations.
We have built and maintained stronger relationships of trust with a network of local partners, including religious, cultural and local leaders, victims’ communities, local and international NGOs, the media, academic and legal communities. With this trust, we have been able to gain a unique and powerful view into the experiences and expectations of the affected populations’ that justice should be done. They tell us stories of hope, resilience, frustration and fear. On occasions, we document their stories so that the rest of the world will learn from and not forget them. We listen to empower people with the knowledge that they have a voice and to show them that someone is listening.
My long experience in the Uganda situation has cemented my conviction in what is possible through engagement – persistence, listening and dialogue. I have observed the progression of the communities’ knowledge and understanding of the ICC; an evolution of questions from the basic to the complex and sophisticated. It is worth mentioning, with a sense of gratification, the increased knowledge and understanding of rural community members of the complex legal proceedings of the Court. Through continuous and regular provision of information to the affected communities, rural communities residing in remote areas who have been exposed to information about the court, most of whom have very little or no formal education, are able to comprehend the issues and provide very meaningful and enriching interrogations in discourses related to the judicial process. Their understanding of the process has progressed with the stages of the trial, as demonstrated by the nature of the issues they discuss and the questions they ask during our interactions. One of my Hague-based colleagues has always given me feedback on how he continues to be impressed with the levels of understanding and the depth of interrogation demonstrated by the victims when he visits northern Uganda.
Outreach has created structures and local partnerships with stakeholders in northern Uganda, whose support has been invaluable in promoting understanding of the work of the ICC, foremost amongst the victims and affected communities. Influential interlocutors, including religious leaders, cultural leaders and local government officials doubled as points of entry to the affected communities paved the way for the expansion of outreach activities to the smallest and farthest village in northern Uganda, and for the ownership demonstrated by the communities. Through transparent engagements, including taking them on working visits to the seat of the ICC in The Hague, the leaders became ardent advocates and promoters of the Court, helping communities to build confidence in the Ongwen trial. This development illustrates clear shifts in their rhetoric from initial ambivalence, criticisms and accusations, to support that lent credence to the integrity of the court and its work, the sustainability of the ideals of justice and accountability in conflict-affected communities, and a clear trail of positive, lasting impact.
Reactions to the trial
There have been mixed reactions, ranging from calls to bring the trial to Uganda and to conduct the proceedings in Gulu, questions about Ongwen’s abduction as a child, and the scope of the case, which is limited to four locations. We have seen the expression of hopes frustrations, fears – all conjuring into empowerment and agency among victims.
Victims and communities that are directly connected to the trial have welcomed the process with open minds and see it as recognition of their plight, with the hope that justice will be delivered what they have suffered and that it will provide a sense of closure. They have owned and participated in the process, and eagerly look forward to the verdict as a determinant of whether or not there will be reparations. They trust the accountability process. They have raised concerns and questions from the early stages about reparations in case Ongwen is convicted and what would happen if acquitted.
For many of the people in places where serious atrocities also occurred but fall outside the scope of Ongwen’s case, while the trial is significant in showing what is possible through international justice processes, they feel left out, given that no one is yet being tried for the atrocities they suffered, and accountability has remained elusive.
It is noteworthy that this process has also been embraced by the community of Coorom, Dominic Ongwen’s place of birth. The leadership and the entire community have worked with us and fully cooperated. This has been further enhanced by the excellent cooperation that we have received from Ongwen’s Defence team with whom we have organised joint outreaches. Understandably, their perspectives can often be divergent on certain issues, but importantly, they have embraced the process and feel confident that the trial is fair and transparent and that the judges will deliver a verdict that will reflect the truth.
Others welcomed the approach of having the parties and participants going to talk to them about the trial. From those interactions you could sense how high the interest of northern Ugandan communities in this trial is. The verdict therefore will be received as an opportunity for many to know the truth, to help them forge a new path for healing, and to achieve closure and reintegration.
Outreach has never been easy or straightforward and during this process, challenges have arisen, some of which are surmountable.
Because of the long time that the Ugandan situation has taken at the court due to lack of arrest, even though the trial itself lasted for only a little over three years, there is impatience in the communities about the length of proceedings.
One of our biggest challenges has been maintaining constant communication with all of the affected communities and meeting their huge information needs. The large population of victims and affected communities are scattered in northern Uganda, residing in small parishes and villages. This makes it very difficult to reach everyone who forms part of the target groups located everywhere across the region.
Expectations are high and bringing them to a realistic level remains an on-going process. Some expectations fall outside of the mandate of the Court as a judicial institution that does not meet the material needs of members of the affected communities, at least in the short term. We have found ourselves constantly explaining the limits of our mandate.
Still, the work of outreach in the trial of Dominic Ongwen has become a testament to what is possible in managing perceptions and building relationships of trust with local populations. It is an enterprise that has been shaped by both humility and determination; it has been as complicated as it has been exciting. Most importantly, it has been a demonstration of what well thought-out, sustained, and open engagement can achieve.