The Ambivalence of a Former Child Soldier’s Indictment

6 February 2015

On the 26th January 2015, Dominic Ongwen, previously the commander of the Sinia brigade in the Lord’s Resistance Army appeared before International Criminal Court judge Ekaterina Trendafilova for a pre-trial hearing where he confirmed his identity and his understanding of the seven charges brought against him. Mr. Ongwen (pictured below) is charged with ordering:Dominic Ongwen

  • unlawful killings of civilian residents constituting crimes against humanity
  • enslavement of civilian residents constituting crimes against humanity
  • inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering upon civilian residents constituting crimes against humanity
  • killings of civilian residents constituting war crimes
  • cruel treatment of civilian residents constituting war crimes
  • intentional directing of attacks against civilian population constituting war crimes
  • pillaging constituting war crimes

It is unclear whether he was captured as Seleka rebels from the Central African Republic claim or as the US asserts, he defected. While the method of his capture is expected to play an important role during the upcoming trial, its first evidence assessment hearing scheduled for the 24th August 2015, the major legal discernment will focus on the outcome of the arguments presented from both sides of the courtroom. Will the inevitability of guilt over the inexcusable crimes committed by Mr. Ongwen over-rule the crime of abduction against Mr. Ongwen that would have inexorably shaped his personality and contributed to susceptibility of the very offences he’s now charged with? Or will his “status as a former child soldier… overshadow Ongwen’s acts as a senior commander in a group notorious for sexual enslavement, mutilations and kidnappings”? (quote by Victor Ochen, director of the African Youth Initiative Network, whose brother was abducted by Mr. Ongwen’s forces in 2003 and has not been heard from since). Whichever process is used to present both sides of the argument, the trial will certainly have legal and political implications for international law and the broader argument of justice vs peace.


Policy of Indoctrination

The LRA is widely known for their systematic policy of forceful recruitment by abducting young children and indoctrinating them. The harrowing stories of people who escaped the bonds of the LRA will be testimonial to Mr. Ongwen’s defence for he too suffered at the hands of higher ranked LRA members when he was abducted. Truth be told, if he did not adapt to the environment of his new home where brutality supplanted normalcy in everyday life, he most probably would have been killed. Therefore, in many ways, Dominic Ongwen’s persona is a combined construct of methodological cruelty and survival instincts and his defence team will be quick to point this out.

Discernibly, one of the main arguments of Dominic Ongwen’s defence team will focus on his abduction at the age of 10 by the LRA and his subsequent development as a soldier in their ranks. The argument will most certainly aim to render the charges as questionable, given the circumstances of his upbringing. Mr. Ongwen will however be the first person charged at the ICC with the same crimes that were committed against him. This will unavoidably cause larger discussions in the courtroom and beyond over the lack of provisions in the Rome Statute that deal with cases that have children growing up in the image of their oppressors – “As the law stands, if they carry out the same crimes after their 18th birthdays that they did the day before, they are no longer victims, but criminals.” (Canadian Children’s Rights Council). This particular anomaly is arguably counter-productive in trying to encourage LRA fighters over the age of 18 to try and escape the bonds of their captors, for they too will be eligible for prosecution. To encourage the continuation of this stance is debilitating to the idea of justice, as justice itself has failed to protect these individuals in the first place. Furthermore, the need to re-assess the provisions concerned with (former) child soldiers is highlighted by the irony of an executive institution, whose landmark cases have provided customary guidelines for prosecuting individuals accused of using children as soldiers, and which is now prosecuting the very child that has been used as a soldier.


Local views

While the significance of Dominic Ongwen’s trial taking place in The Hague lies within the credibility of the international community to adhere to universal human rights and justice principles enshrined in the values promoted by the UN, local communities’ direct links with the atrocities committed by the LRA gives rise to the need to hear their voices. The Refugee Law Project (RLP) together with the Northern Uganda Transitional Justice Working Group (NUTJWG) hosted a consultative dialogue and released a report on the 26th January with viewpoints on “Ongwen’s Justice Dilemma”. The outcome of the discussions on whether Dominic Ongwen is a victim or a perpetrator is an echo of the way Ugandan society deals with former child soldiers; namely that “most participants argued that Ongwen is a victim and will remain so because it was the Government that failed in its responsibility to protect him, prior to his abduction.”, the report stated. While this may be the path most likely to incentivise and encourage LRA soldiers to surrender, the question of whether forgiveness is enough to address the suffering of the victims is unavoidable. The majority of Ugandans view this case as a matter of government failure, however “there were also those who saw Ongwen as a victim but still wanted him tried by the ICC”, as presented in the report.

Notwithstanding is the challenge of including every LRA escapee into a rehabilitation programme, which is vital to the future of both the returnees and the community – “A number of children who have returned without passing through a rehabilitation centre have not settled well. Some of them have become drug addicts, some of them have been rejected because the family have not been prepared” says Christine Oroma, a counsellor at a World Vision rehabilitation centre in Gulu, northern Uganda.


Justice and peace for all victims

The distressing accounts of atrocities committed by the LRA tell a story of unprecedented suffering by those abducted. Perhaps the biggest issue, as portrayed through the seven charges against Dominic Ongwen, is that the individuals carrying out these crimes have been subjected to torturous indoctrination, and forced to maim, kill, enslave and pillage while fearing for their own lives if they didn’t do as commanded; the stories of children abducted by the LRA are a testimony of the “detailed and horrifying accounts of the systematic policies of intimidation, brutalization, and terror to which they had been subjected”[1] (accounts collected by HART). Nevertheless, the inability to stop the LRA once and for all and bring Joseph Kony to the stand leaves many victims without any form of justice or peace of mind. “While it is important to end impunity, reparations to victims remain equally vital. We must not simply prosecute the crimes Ongwen committed but also focus on righting the wrongs meted upon the affected communities” – a perspective that many Ugandans share as seen through “Ongwen’s Justice Dilemma” report.

[1] Baroness Caroline Cox, This Immoral Trade, Lion Hudson plc, Chapter 4, page 100

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Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.

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