By Alfredo Hwang, MJIL Staff Member

On December 6, 2016, the prosecution of Dominic Ongwen, a former child soldier abducted by the Ugandan rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army (“LRA”) who eventually became the commander of the LRA’s Sinia Brigade, began at the International Criminal Court (“ICC”).[1]

What are the Charges Against Dominic Ongwen:

A warrant of arrest for Ongwen was initially issued on July 8, 2008 for seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.[2] On December 21, 2015 the Prosecutor charged Ongwen with additional crimes to those set out in the warrant for a total of seventy counts.[3] The counts brought against Ongwen focus on alleged crimes committed in 2003 and 2004 during attacks on people in camps for internally displaced persons.[4] The charges include murder, torture, enslavement, persecution, sexual and gender-based crimes and the conscription and use of child soldiers in norther Uganda.[5]

Who are the LRA:

Led by the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, the LRA has committed atrocities against civilians for nearly three decades in Northern Uganda, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.[6] This is the first time one of LRA’s fighters has been brought before a domestic or international court to stand trial.[7] More than 4,100 people have volunteered themselves to be “victim participants” in this trial.[8]

Initial Defense and Prosecution Arguments:

The Prosecution began presenting its case on January 16, 2017.[9] Defense lawyers are arguing that Ogwen, who was himself a child soldier, acted under the terror and authority exercised by Kony on LRA fighters.[10] According to Ogwen’s family, he was abducted at age 10 by LRA fighters on his way to school.[11] Once abducted, he was tortured and forced to watch violent rituals of people being killed and subsequently indoctrinated, while still a child, as an LRA fighter.[12] Later on, he rose within the ranks, eventually becoming head of the Sinia Brigade, one of four LRA brigades.[13] Ogwen’s lawyers say that he was a victim caught in a system of which he did not have any means of control.[14] “What I know is that when Joseph Kony gives you an order and you do not apply it, you’re arrested, detained, punished, you’re beaten,” testified at the trial witness P-016, a former LRA radio operator who fled the rebel group 12 years ago.[15]

During the trial, the prosecution focused on the fact that Ongwen enjoyed advantages brought by his commander position. For instance, when interrogating the same witness, they asked P-016 to authenticate a series of wire taps provided by Uganda’s intelligence services, showing Ongwen enjoying benefits that came along with his position in the LRA. This includes Ongwen being allowed to have a mobile phone– an absolute prohibition within the LRA.[16]

The next trial hearing will take place on February 27, 2017.[17]

Importance of this case

The trial is an important landmark in the international legal community because of its unprecedented concerns. For one, this is the first time a high-ranked LRA member is being prosecuted. After three decades of atrocities, victims may finally be able to attain some sense of justice. Although Ongwen is just a small part of the atrocity, it is a start. The importance of obtaining justice to these victims explains why over 4,100 of them have volunteered to be victim participants in this trial. Secondly, this is the first time a former child soldier is being prosecuted. Accordingly, the decision of the ICC in The Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen might establish some precedent to future trials regarding this issue. Although unlikely to absolve Ongwen from his crimes, the fact that he was abducted and forced to become a child soldier will likely be an important mitigating factor. Lastly, the ICC has been frequently criticized by its inability to provide justice, since many of those they charge are never arrested nor put on trial.[18] As such, this case could be a demonstration to the world that the ICC should be taken more seriously and that it can provide justice as a court of last resort.

[1] The Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen, ICC-02/04-01/15, https://www.icc-cpi.int/uganda/ongwen (last visited Feb. 20, 2017).

[2] International Criminal Court, Alleged Crimes (Non-exhaustive list) for The Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen, https://www.icc-cpi.int/uganda/ongwen/pages/alleged-crimes.aspx (last visited Feb. 20, 2017).

[3] Id.

[4] Human Rights Watch, ICC: First Lord’s Resistance Army Trial Begins (Dec. 5, 2016, 12:01 AM EST), https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/05/icc-first-lords-resistance-army-trial-begins.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Id. “Victim participation” at the ICC is a new feature in international criminal justice where victims have the possibility to share their views and concerns in the proceedings, represented by a lawyer. Such participation is voluntary and victims do not have to travel to the seat of the Court. Their identities are protected in the proceedings by a pseudonym attributed to them by the Court (for example: a/0001/18). Additionally, this system enables victims, through their lawyers, to express an opinion independently of the Prosecution or the Defense. International Criminal Court, Victims, https://www.icc-cpi.int/about/victims (last visited Feb. 20, 2017).

[9] Supra note 1.

[10] Elsa Buchanan, First LRA fighter testifies during warlord Dominic Ongwen’s ICC trial, International Business Times (Jan. 26, 2017, 10:23 GMT), http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/first-lra-fighter-testifies-during-warlord-dominic-ongwens-icc-trial-1603188.

[11] Id.

[12] Ledio Cakaj, The Complex Story of a Child Soldier, The Washington Post (Jan. 12, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/01/12/the-complex-story-of-a-child-soldier/?utm_term=.7dd54b27fa5b.

[13] Id.

[14] Supra note 10.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Supra note 1.

[18] A Contrario- International Criminal Law, The Ineffectiveness of the Rome Statute (Aug. 31, 2013), https://acontrarioicl.com/2013/08/31/the-ineffectiveness-of-the-rome-statute/.