Short post to link you all to a new piece I have up at Warscapes: “Dominic Ongwen and the Search for Justice.” The article focuses on Dominic Ongwen, an LRA abductee-turned-commander who sat before the ICC’s confirmation of charges in January. I explore his particular case, but also look at the ICC’s broader intervention in the LRA conflict, and how it has narrowed the popular understanding of what types of justice are possible and for whom. You should read the whole thing (please!) but here’s a preview:
When Dominic Ongwen stood before the International Criminal Court on January 21, he confronted a team of prosecutors and judges presenting a list of his alleged war crimes. After spending years as a brigade commander in the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Ongwen was no longer outfitted in rebel attire, but stood in a gray suit and tie, listening to the proceedings as they were translated into his native Acholi language. He waived the right to have each of the charges against him read aloud in court, so the presiding judge, Cuno Tarfusser, summarized the seventy charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
When Ongwen was first taken into custody last January, major rights groups heralded his capture as an important step towards justice. Amnesty International argued that “Ongwen now needs to be held to account for the numerous charges he faces of murder, mutilation, forced recruitment of child soldiers and use of sex slaves.” Africa director of Human Rights Watch, Daniel Bekele, called Ongwen’s transfer to The Hague “a major step for those affected by the LRA’s long history of crimes.” This was a sign of progress in the ICC’s first case, which was opened in 2004 and has otherwise seen little development.
But while Western rights groups were nearly unanimous in supporting Ongwen’s transfer to the ICC, the mood among Ugandans was decidedly mixed—even among victims of LRA violence. The Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative issued apress release regretting that Ongwen had been sent to the ICC, arguing instead for him to be brought home and forgiven through traditional reconciliation ceremonies. The statement said that the ICC, “which is punitive or retributive, promotes polarization that only leads into ultimate alienation on both sides” of the conflict. Around the same time, Makerere University’s Refugee Law Project facilitated a dialogue of local leaders in Gulu, a town that was at the center of the conflict for many years. A report on the discussion found that attitudes among the Acholi people were complicated and support for Ongwen’s arrest was far from universal.
It’s been about a month since I’ve blogged, but I’m home from my research trip to Uganda/Congo and I thought I’d send you over to the Justice in Conflict blog to read a guest post that I wrote on former LRA commander Caesar Acellam and his defection story. It covers his appearance before the conference I attended in Gulu in late June and also examines the consequences of his defection. Here’s an excerpt:
When he was initially taken into custody, Invisible Children and the UPDF pointed to Acellam’s capture as evidence in support of the military approach to apprehending Kony and his commanders. Framing his defection as a military victory reinforced the goals of Kony 2012 and the UPDF’s international manhunt. But at the conference, hosted by Invisible Children and which included a representative from the military, Acellam told a story of escape and defection in which he broke with LRA leadership on multiple occasions.
If his story is taken as true, it flies in the face of the UPDF narrative and raises questions about the UPDF’s role in the conflict. If disagreements within the LRA led to Acellam’s escape, and he went in search of a place to surrender, then there could be less militarized ways to facilitate such defections, such as defection messaging and reception centers. In addition, Acellam’s defection makes it clear that he should be granted full amnesty. Despite the fact that the amnesty law was reinstated this May, the Amnesty Commission remains drastically underfunded and understaffed and it is unclear if Acellam is in the process of applying for amnesty at all.
Invisible Children, however, has been able to handle the change from capture to defection incredibly well. The organization has always pushed for embracing the LRA abductees while condemning the indicted commanders to justice, opening a rehabilitation center for former abductees in the DRC and partnering with local NGOs that work on promoting reconciliation with the rebel group. Acellam’s defection helps support their message of forgiving abductees without harming their campaign to bring Kony to justice. Similarly, Acholi traditional and religious leaders have used this opportunity to continue to push for a more peaceful end to the conflict, promoting their use forgiveness and reconciliation over military action.
Be sure to check out the whole post. A tip of the hat to Mark Kersten, who runs the JiC site, edited my post, and is an all-around great resource on the role of justice in the LRA conflict, for agreeing to share my piece.
This morning former LRA Maj. Gen. Achellam Caesar spoke to a group of Congolese and Central African civil society, government, and religious leaders in Gulu. A Central African asked him whether he defected or was captured, and I’m summarizing what Achellam responded. I recorded the event, and will try to get a full transcript up later. But, according to Achellam:
He was first abducted in 1988 for being an NRM collaborator. He was told that if he tried to escape the LRA would attack his home village, so he decided to stay with the rebels. In July of 2007, Achellam was detained by the LRA on suspicion of encouraging other rebels to defect. He was beaten and placed in solitary confinement. It was around this time that Vincent Otti, Kony’s second in command, was executed. Achellam remained in detention until June of 2009, when continued attacks from the UPDF-led Operation Lightning Thunder forced the LRA to flee. He was detained again in 2011, and escaped in May of 2012. He fled with a few others across into CAR and followed tracks that the UPDF had left behind, surrendering to them when they met.
If this story is true, and who knows if it is, then it seems Achellam’s capture was more of a defection. This is important in terms of the legal aspects of amnesty – which is granted automatically upon application after escape or defection, but must be approved by the Director of Public Prosecution if the applicant was captured.
Achellam’s status is very, very vague. He lives in the army barracks in Gulu with his family, and many assure that he is a free man. But when he arrived today it was with military personnel in tow, and his freedom is rather questionable. That said, an army spokesman said yesterday that Achellam may be in the process of negotiating a leadership role in the UPDF, which is important to note. We’ll see how this all pans out. I’ll add more later if I get more information about his case.