from Africa in Transition

To Catch a Victim and a Perpetrator: The ICC and Dominic Ongwen

February 12, 2015

Blog Post

This is a guest post by Cheryl Strauss Einhorn, a journalist and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

They’ve got him, but can they get him? That’s the question before the International Criminal Court (ICC) as it finally confronts Dominic Ongwen, the number two commander in Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The Court has been after him for a decade, almost as long as it has been in existence.

So can it bring Ongwen to justice? The dilemma: Ongwen is not only a perpetrator; he is also a victim of the LRA. A group that must also be brought to justice, the LRA is blamed for killing over 100,000 people and kidnapping some 60,000 children across 5 central African nations during the past 25 years.

Ongwen himself was one of those stolen children. Kidnapped at the age of 14 on his way to school in 1988, Ongwen allegedly shed his childhood for murder and mayhem, quickly rising through the ranks. This raises an important issue for a Court that has shed a spotlight on the problem of child soldiers, but must recognize that Ongwen is charged with crimes he committed as an adult.

Ongwen, the first Ugandan rebel to face the Court, is not going to make it easy for the Court to bring him to justice. For example, when asked by a judge what his job is he replied “I am unemployed, and that is all.” While Ongwen later admitted “Prior to my arrival at the court I was a soldier in the LRA,” it is his right to try to defend himself and dodge incriminating questions; it is the Court’s obligation to effectively mete out justice.

Will the Court consider his personal history as a mitigating factor in his confirmation hearings in April that provide the preliminary step to decide whether a case will be referred for trial? Certainly, these facts could be relevant to his legal defense.

In fact, in his home country of Uganda, Ongwen was banking on returning home a free man. Back in 2000, the Ugandan government passed an Amnesty Act allowing thousands of former LRA combatants, including those who willingly joined the rebels, to qualify for a full pardon. The reason: an effort to enable communities to sidestep the murky issue of culpability stemming from being, like Ongwen, both a perpetrator and a victim.

In a videotaped interview with the Ugandan Army Ongwen said “I have shown my true character by coming out. I don’t want to die in the wilderness. If the call for amnesty is mere politicking, then I leave it in the hands of the authorities holding me.”

The Ugandan authorities chose to turn him in to the Court. Uganda’s state minister for foreign affairs, Henry Oryem Okello, told the press that President Museveni was compelled to send Ongwen to the Court because his alleged crimes extended beyond Uganda’s borders and into other countries where the LRA was active, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan.

Specifically, the Court alleges that in 2005 Dominic Ongwen was the LRA’s commander of the Sinia Brigade and accuses him of three counts of crimes against humanity, as well as four counts of war crimes, including murder and the cruel treatment of civilians.

As recently as a month ago Ongwen told the Ugandan Army, “Even up to now, I dream about war every night.”

So what will happen? The Court will again have to forge new ground. It will have to show that it can prove its charges against Ongwen and it must push the conversation of child soldiers forward, not by accepting a false choice between clemency and sanction, but instead by showing that understanding and compassion are not at odds with justice.