Shameless Self-Promotion: ICC Justice at Warscapes

Hello – brief note that I had a piece go up last week at Warscapes on the Dominic Ongwen trial at the ICC, now underway. It builds off of my first article for them last March, and parts of it are visible in this post I wrote the day the trial began. Here’s the article, and here’s an excerpt:

The courtroom is thought to be a site of justice, but critics have pointed out that justice often lies beyond the confines of law–that transitional justice, social justice, and a just memory can be attained not only in the courtroom but in  everyday public life. As Giorgio Agamben once claimed, “law is not directed towards the establishment of justice. Nor is it directed toward the verification of truth. Law is solely directed toward judgment.” The ICC case is arguably about judging Ongwen, regardless of what that judgment might mean. The LRA conflict is a good example, as Ongwen will likely be the only person to stand trial, and the four attacks for which he is charged are merely the ones with enough evidence to make it into court. This is shocking considering that the war has ravaged northern Uganda for the better part of three decades, resulting in thousands of killings and abductions and the displacement of millions at the hands of both the army and the rebels. The infamous rebel leader Joseph Kony is still in hiding; most other rebel commanders are dead or have been granted amnesty as part of a counterinsurgency demobilization effort. The Ugandan military has never been investigated for its role in the conflict. As such, Ongwen and the four attacks he is being tried for bear the weight of the quest for justice for countless victims of untold violations.

International criminal law has little room to acknowledge Ongwen’s unique position as both a war criminal and as the victim of war crimes. He himself was abducted as a child and forced into the rebel army in the late 1980s. Charged with the very crimes of which he was a victim, Ongwen’s personal history sheds light on the limits of international criminal justice in complicated situations like the war in northern Uganda. Ongwen has had to live his life in the context of everyday violence. His actions, whether he found himself reluctant or enthusiastic about the beatings, rapes, murders, and abductions he carried out or ordered, were shaped by this environment, making him what Erin Baines, professor at the Liu Institute for Global Issues, calls a “complex political perpetrator.” Growing up in such traumatic times, how does one pursue a moral life? And to what extent is one held responsible for failure in that pursuit? While admitting that “the evidence of many of the child victims in this case could, in other circumstances, be the story of the accused himself,” Chief Prosecutor Bensouda argued that “having suffered victimization in the past is not a justification or an excuse to victimize others.”

The uneasy act of prosecuting a victim-turned-perpetrator, and the continued failure to hold the Ugandan state accountable, are some of the reasons that justice here is seen as a fiction, or as justice only partially realized. For victims of other attacks–for victims of Ugandan state violence, and for victims in South Sudan, Central African Republic, and the Congo–justice still seems out of reach. The pursuit of justice, after all, is the quest to establish a fair and equitable society for all. In northern Uganda, where the president whose ascendancy provoked the LRA into existence is still in power thirty years later and increasingly authoritarian, there is little in the way of justice. The people of the other three countries have fared even worse, both in terms of justice and peace, as each state has seen numerous crises and wars in recent years. If, as anthropologist Kamari Clarke claims, “justice itself is not a thing but a set of relations through which people establish norms of acceptability,” then revealing the truth of what has happened in the war is as important as finding new ways for people to understand and reconcile with one another. This requires much more than a single trial.

Click on through to read the rest. Big props to the Warscapes team and the critical edits that got the piece out rather quickly. Ongwen’s trial will continue into the spring, so I’ll be keeping an eye out as everything moves forwards. I’m sure there will be more.

The Prosecutor vs. Dominic Ongwen

Today, the trial of Dominic Ongwen is continuing at the ICC. Opening statements were heard in early December, and the remainder of the trial, starting today, will be held throughout this spring. The case is an important one, both because it’s one of the earlier cases to be heard at the ICC, because it is the first (and potentially only) case to be heard regarding the LRA conflict, and because of the unique fact that Ongwen was kidnapped and forced to join the rebel group as a child about thirty years ago, making him a former child soldier being tried for crimes conducted while conscripted.

There will be a lot written about the trial as it happens and in its aftermath. I wrote about the Ongwen trial last year, focusing on the debate over whether he should stand trial or not, and I’m working on another piece now (update: here it is!). The blog Justice in Conflict also held an online symposium that includes some really good, short posts about different aspects of the case. And back in 2008 Justice and Reconciliation Project published a report about Ongwen and the complicated issue of victim-perpetrators that gets at some of the complexities involved [pdf]. It is the uniqueness of this case and the crucial debates around it that put it at the center of conversations about the ICC and the search for justice in the LRA conflict.

The case has been an interesting one so far. During the confirmation of charges hearings last January, the prosecution laid out its evidence for the case, comprised of numerous witnesses as well as the radio conversations of several LRA commanders, recorded by Ugandan security forces. The facts of the case will address four different attacks on IDP camps – at Pajule, Odek, Lukodi, and Abok camps – as well as “thematic” crimes concerning sexual and gender-based crimes as well as crimes against children. All told, Ongwen faces seventy charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, more than any other person. In the transcript of the opening day in December, the reading out of the charges took up seven pages.

The trial will produce a narrative about the conflict. How much this narrative follows the “official discourse” of the war that Sverker Finnström once laid remains to be seen. As Adam Branch notes, the presentations of the prosecution and defense during this preliminary stage of the trial at times followed this dominant narrative but at other times ruptured it. Over the course of this trial, an archive will be produced by the arguments, evidence, and testimonies. This archive has the potential to shape the broader way that the conflict is understood.

But the trial is just part of the way people will find justice in the aftermath of this conflict. Ongwen is but one man, and his trial will principally be about the four attacks he is accused of committing or ordering. This war has lasted thirty years and spanned four countries, including attacks by both the rebels and the state. There is a lot of accountability that has been deferred. But can a trial bring people justice?

“Law is not directed toward the establishment of justice. Nor is it directed toward the verification of truth,” Giorgio Agamben writes in Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive. “Law is solely directed toward judgment, independent of truth and justice” (18). The law is about trials, so international criminal law leads us to the ICC, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to get closer to justice, especially if we are talking about something beyond criminal justice. Transitional justice requires changing the politics that led to the violence in the first place – but Uganda has seen little transition since 1986. Social and political justice requires reshaping society to address people’s grievances – but the more we focus on the trial of one man, the further we get from the reform necessary to prevent future outbreaks of violence. A just memory requires acknowledging the responsibilities of all parties involved, but much of the discourse around the LRA conflict still glosses over state violence and humanitarian complicity. Justice at the ICC may indeed be a good thing, but it’s certainly not the only thing.

If a trial is merely about judgment, and criminal justice becomes the only avenue through which the victims of the conflict can find justice, then we will be left at an impasse. Agamben, again, can be guide us here. In his discussion of the Nuremberg trials and the trials of Barbie, Eichmann, and others, he says that such judgments “are responsible for the conceptual confusion that, for decades, has made it impossible to think through Auschwitz. Despite the necessity of the trials and despite their evident insufficiency (they involved only a few hundred people), they helped to spread the idea that the problem of Auschwitz had been overcome” (19-20). The Ongwen trial will shed light on the specific attacks, victims, and witnesses, but much will not be acknowledged. What will become of those victims? Those perpetrators? Those memories?

As the trial begins, it will be important to pay attention to the narrative being created. It will also be important to not attach too much to this narrative, because it will inherently be insufficient. If the trial is a necessary part of fostering justice in Uganda and the international stage, it is also necessary to remember that it is not the only place where justice can be found.

Shameless Self-Promotion: at Warscapes

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.

Acholi Opinions of Ongwen’s Arrest

I’ve written a little bit over the last month or so about Dominic Ongwen’s arrest and the charges he faces. There are a pair of recent publications that shed light on the heated debate over his arrest and trial.

For background: Dominic Ongwen was abducted by the LRA as a young boy and inducted into the rebel group, where he gradually rose in ranks to become a high-level brigade commander. As many have noted, he may be the first conscripted child soldier to be charged with conscripting children, a status that makes his case controversial.

Beyond all of this controversy, many in the Acholi community have long pushed for reconciliation rather than prosecution or military action as a means of ending the war. The radio programs I studied over the last couple of years are just one example of efforts to encourage rebels to demobilize and return home without punishment. The national Amnesty Act is another, and the mato oput traditional reconciliation ceremony is another. There have been numerous efforts at reconciliation that don’t follow the usual retributive justice model. This isn’t to say that these efforts don’t have their own set of critics – they do – but that the question of whether or not Ongwen should face trial at the ICC is complicated.

At the end of January, two pieces were published that speak to the complexity of Ongwen’s arrest on the ground in Acholiland.

First, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an interfaith group that was created in northern Uganda to address the LRA conflict, issued a press release on Ongwen’s trial which puts the rest of the world on blast:

The question we all need to ask ourselves, is, how did Ongwen Dominic, in the first place, end up in the hands of the LRA? We have been informed from the most reliable sources that Ongwen Dominic was abducted, by force, at the age of ten years old, by LRA. In this context, we believe that there was, of course, some negligence, on the part of the government of Uganda, which had failed to protect numerous unfortunate children of Northern Uganda for years. On the other hand, the LRA that abducted Ongwen Dominic at tender age, and destroyed his humanity completely, by making him to becoming a mere killing machine in its hands, should be held both accountable and responsible for all that Ongwen Dominic did during the LRA captivity all these years. We also think that the international community did not take immediate action to arrest the unbearable situation of the LRA in time. A lot of mistakes have been made even by the international community, who did not have an eye to see us, as human beings here in Northern Uganda. Instead, we have all become ‘invisible people’ in the eyes of the international community.

The press release also argues for Ongwen to undergo traditional reconciliation in Gulu instead of facing trial at the ICC. This statement includes a strong critique of the retributive justice system:

Ongwen Dominic, as a victim of circumstances, should not be punished twice, by humanity. Ongwen Dominic, as a victim of circumstances should not be taken to the Hague in the Netherthelands in Europe. As a matter of course, Ongwen Dominic should have been brought back home, in order, to go through the rituals of ‘Mato Oput’ (Reconciliation), as a cleansing mechanism to all that he went through during his time in the LRA captivity. The cultural justice system of Mato Oput is pro-life and holistic in every respect in life. Unlike the Court system in the world, it brings restoration of the broken human relationships. It also brings a complete transformation in the lives of the two communities involved into violent conflict.

It creates a healing process in the hearts of all those who have been wounded, by the war of insurgency. But above all, it brings new life to all the communities who have been affected by violence and death. In the truth-telling process, there are no denials, no lies, and no deceptions, as it is the case in the Court system. Surprisingly, the Court system, which is punitive or retributive, promotes polarization that only leads into ultimate alienation on both sides.

A week later, the Refugee Law Project, a think tank affiliated with Makerere University, published a report on Ongwen’s trial and leading perspectives [pdf] in Gulu. It includes similar indictments of the Ugandan government for allowing LRA violence to continue unabated in the north:

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. Ongwen was abducted in Gulu in 1990, at the age of 10 while on his way to school. Sheikh Musa Kilil said, “It was the responsibility of government to protect such a child, a pupil who was going to school”. Reflecting on who a victim is in the context of the LRA, a former abductee noted, “Victims in LRA conflict are all those who were abducted, those who lost their property, body parts, their lives, loved ones and others who have been forced to kill”. Another participant argued that Ongwen is a victim because; “Ongwen was abducted, destroyed and ruined. He was made a teacher of a system whose motto value is, kill to survive”

These opinions are just a few more examples of how complicated and potentially divisive this trial, which begins in August, will be.

Ongwen’s Indictment and Lukodi

The ICC has released the un-redacted version of Dominic Ongwen’s indictment [pdf] for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It appears that the incident at the center of his indictment was the Lukodi Massacre in 2004.

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Members of civil society from the DRC and CAR say a prayer alongside people from Lukodi at the memorial for the massacre. June, 2013.

As Ledio Cakaj tweeted yesterday, this will bring attention to the tragic situation of IDP camps in the history of the war – Lukodi was but one of many “protected” camps that the military forced civilians into, then provided little to no protection. Some have even called the camp policy one of genocide. (If you want to read up on this, Chris Dolan’s Social Torture is a thorough analysis of the camps, and Adam Branch has written on the humanitarian complicity [pdf] in the program).

The Justice and Reconciliation Project published a report on the Lukodi Massacre in 2011 which you can access here [pdf]. The trial of Dominic Ongwen will raise a lot of interesting issues, not least because of his unique status as both victim and perpetrator of child conscription. The JRP report also doesn’t name Ongwen as the commander in the attack. I’m not familiar enough with this incident, but it is yet another question that will come up as to Ongwen’s responsibility for the massacre.

Here are a few photos from when I was in Lukodi in 2013. While I was researching radio interventions in northern Uganda, I observed a conference of Congolese and Central African civil society members who were hosted by Invisible Children in Gulu. One day, everyone took a bus to Lukodi where they met members of the community in Lukodi and heard testimonies of what had happened there. A victim of LRA violence from CAR also spoke to the audience about her experience. Later, a group of school children performed before the group headed back to Gulu.

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Members of civil society from the DRC and CAR say a prayer alongside people from Lukodi at the memorial for the massacre. June, 2013.

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Members of civil society from the DRC and CAR say a prayer alongside people from Lukodi at the memorial for the massacre. June, 2013.

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Members of civil society from the DRC and CAR say a prayer alongside people from Lukodi at the memorial for the massacre. June, 2013.

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Members of civil society from the DRC and CAR say a prayer alongside people from Lukodi at the memorial for the massacre. June, 2013.

The Complexities of Dominic Ongwen’s Reported Surrender

News broke on Tuesday that ICC-indicted LRA commander Dominic Ongwen had surrendered to U.S. forces in Central African Republic. The human rights and LRA crowd was all atwitter (literally), and it has now been confirmed that Ongwen surrendered (or maybe was captured) by Seleka forces near Kafia Kingi, who handed him over to U.S. forces in Obo. Ongwen is to be handed over to Uganda, and his ultimate fate remains uncertain.

Ongwen’s case is a complex one. He was abducted and conscripted into the LRA at the age of 10, but quickly rose through the LRA ranks to become the leader of the Sinia brigade. For his involvement in attacks on IDP camps and the killing and abducting of civilians, Ongwen was charged by the ICC with three counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes in 2005. He has since continued to be active in the LRA, although his position in the army’s leadership has been in flux. He has been sidelined by Kony, but remains influential in the rebel group to some degree.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ongwen, the essential reading list includes Erin Baines’ article on Ongwen and his position as a “complex political perpetrator” [gated] and a report [pdf] she wrote for the Justice and Reconciliation Project that discusses similar issues. Ledio Cakaj also wrote a brief but thorough bio on Ongwen for the LRA Crisis Tracker.

In addition, Mark Kersten recently penned some reflections on what Ongwen’s surrender/capture means, and why it isn’t a clear-cut victory for international justice. Importantly, he notes the “it’s complicated” relationship status between Uganda and the ICC, and the tenuous status of Uganda’s domestic court for international crimes – two important aspects of the ICC’s involvement in the LRA conflict.

Dominic Ongwen’s story isn’t over, and it will be interesting to see how it unfolds as he is transferred to Uganda and navigates a complex path between the domestic justice, amnesty, and international justice systems, not to mention the politics of all three.

*   *   *

This past fall, I presented a paper at the African Studies Association on Invisible Children and the role of reconciliation. While most of the paper deals with Invisible Children’s programs in central Africa, part of it discusses narratives of reconciliation and accountability – especially in regards to the ICC. I compare Ongwen’s status and the narrative surrounding him to that of Caesar Acellam, the LRA commander taken into custody in 2012 whom I wrote about here. Acellam’s story is similar to Ongwen’s, but the reception to this capture/surrender were different than the media’s and human rights community’s treatment was markedly different. While not directly about recent events, here are the relevant paragraphs discussing Ongwen:

LRA commander Dominic Ongwen was placed on the wanted list of the ICC and was recently the target (along with Joseph Kony and Okot Odihambo) of radio messages offering rewards for information leading to his capture. The U.S. government had expanded its Justice for Rewards bounty program to include LRA commanders indicted by the ICC a year before (see Ross 2013), with strong support and grassroots mobilization from Invisible Children.  Ongwen has not been the target of this attention because of his role in the organization today – he has recently been demoted, arrested, and threatened on Kony’s orders on numerous occasions (Lancaster and Cakaj 2013). Like Acellam, Ongwen was abducted in his youth, and subsequently rose in the rebel ranks to become a commander. Unlike Acellam and other LRA commanders who enjoy impunity or have received amnesty, however, Ongwen is painted as responsible for his actions. Ongwen remains “the first known person to be charged with the same war crimes of which he is also victim” (Baines 2008, 1). Some Invisible Children staff members I spoke to argued that Acellam was a victim of the LRA despite his position, while Ongwen had grown into LRA leadership and should therefore be held to account. But the reason Ongwen’s name is said on Congolese radio waves is arguably not based on his role in the LRA now, but because of his role in the organization in the early 2000s, and because of the timing of the ICC’s intervention.

Acellam and Ongwen were conscripted into LRA ranks decades ago, “a temporal span over which a young person so labeled [as child soldier] at one time moves to different stages of moral reasoning, responsibility, and culpability” (Ferme 2014, 58). Both fit the category of “complex political perpetrators” (Baines 2009), those who came of age within LRA ranks and became perpetrators in an attempt to reclaim agency over their lives, but who nonetheless remain victims, and whose complex status is excluded from the criminal justice discourse that the ICC and its supporters put forth (Baines 2009). Both Acellam and Ongwen fit these descriptions, yet the former has evaded the responsibility and culpability that could have come with commanding a rebel group as an adult while the latter has been less fortunate, due primarily to his having been indicted by the ICC. Despite the ICC’s role in the LRA conflict having diminished over the years since the end of the Juba peace talks, the Court remains a potent force for the three remaining indicted individuals – and for Invisible Children. By channeling Invisible Children’s media and narrative, the ICC has calcified the identities of the LRA leadership based on dated investigations and dictated the narrative of Invisible Children’s justice-for-some, forgiveness-for-others narrative.

References: