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.

The Future of the ICC and Justice

It’s an interesting time to be watching the ICC. Last month, Gabon surprised many by referring a situation to the Court, potentially opening up another investigation on the continent. But in the last week South Africa, Burundi, and The Gambia have all officially withdrawn from the Court, throwing the entire institution into question as the collapse of African support for the ICC is manifested after years of erosion.

I don’t have too many hot takes right now, but do want to note both the obvious importance of such ongoing events, but also flag the long and thorough critiques of the ICC’s structure and capabilities. The ICC as an institution rests on state compliance and participation, and so the withdrawal of these three African countries – particularly the unexpected decision by South Africa – will have a big impact, especially if they herald a larger exodus. At the same time, the type of justice that the ICC offers is a narrow and specific one. If the ICC is indeed crumbling, it is not the end of justice. It may even be a new beginning. That said, the ICC continues to have its hand in many pots. The trial of Dominic Ongwen is set to begin in January, and will be a place to watch for what types of justice might be offered by the ICC.

For now, though, a brief link roundup.

Kate Cronin-Furman and Stephanie Schwartz have a good write-up on what Burundi and South Africa’s withdrawal means in light of the continent as a whole. Burundi’s withdrawal was almost expected, and the reasons for it are clear. The case of South Africa is a little harder to discern:

As anti-ICC sentiments have hardened within the A.U., South Africa has struggled to balance its role as a regional leader with its ambitions as an emerging global power. One read of the situation is that the withdrawal is less about South Africa’s relationship with the court than it is about its view of itself vis-à-vis the rest of the continent. If, in fact, a mass walkout is imminent, South Africa would prefer to lead the movement rather than follow others.

Mark Kersten agrees with this analysis, but doesn’t think a mass walkout is in order – though a few states may follow suit. In his post, Kersten also takes a hard look at the domestic political situation in South Africa, which is worth perusing. In the end, as always, we’ll have to watch this play out and see how the chips fall. The ICC is a robust institution, but its record is shaky and its reliance on state participation means every state that leaves weakens it little by little. But it’s never had the overt support of powerful states like the U.S., China, Russia, etc. – arguably a bigger obstacle to any effort at establishing global justice norms.

It’s this reliance on states that renders the ICC ineffective from the start. While many criticisms of the ICC are about bias, the power inequities of the global stage as well as who has signed the Rome Statute and who has not create an inherent bias – an inherent impunity. As Samar Al-Bulushi notes:

From the protection of victims and witnesses to the apprehension of suspects, the ICC’s operational reliance on powerful states ensures that individuals from those states will largely escape scrutiny, and that the Court’s decisions are often far removed from the very people it was designed to protect.

[…]

The ICC and its more prominent supporters, much like proponents of the “responsibility to protect,” generally lead us to believe that the Court is the answer to impunity, as though the law were divorced from politics, and as though “peace” and “justice” can simply be delivered at the push of a button.

Yet the ICC is an institution located within a larger architecture of power that endows some crimes and some victims with legitimacy, and not others. At the same time, its “responsibility to punish” is subject to political manipulation that allows for further exception and impunity.

This last point is why, regardless of what happens to the ICC, justice will have to be found elsewhere. The ICC will continue to receive referrals and investigate conflicts, it will even issue warrants and charges and try those it is able to get to The Hague. But even if these withdrawals didn’t happen, the ICC’s crippling reliance on member states – and the refusal of human rights-abusive states like Syria or Sudan, Israel or the U.S. to even join the Court – mean the ICC would still face be biased not only in where it chose to investigate, but where it even could investigate legally. What justice is there if some will never even be investigated?

So let’s not conflate justice with international criminal justice. As Kamari Clarke writes in Fictions of Justice, “it is limiting to assume that ‘the law’ – rule of law, criminal law, national law – is the only way that justice can be achieved, especially because justice itself is not a thing but a set of relations through which people establish norms of acceptability” (147). Western liberal legal norms at the international level are certainly not the only place where people can be held accountable, guilt can be attributed, responsibility meted out, and reconciliation fostered. The ICC is one place where some of this can happen, sometimes, for some people. What happens to the ICC matters, but we can and should imagine justice happening outside of The Hague. The withdrawal of these three countries should be taken seriously not only for its potential consequences for the ICC, but also as a signal to think beyond the ICC, as Al-Bulushi urges.

Straight to Court: The Case for Private Prosecutions

If there is one issue that has marked American society in the last year, it has been a lack of accountability for violence against people of color – especially by law enforcement. Men like Michael Brown, John Crawford III, and Eric Garner all died at the hands of police officers who were never even indicted, let alone tried and found guilty in a court of law. The rampant impunity that negligent police officers enjoy has been the rallying point for many protests and demonstrations since last summer.

The process from investigation to indictment to trial is usually not one that favors the alleged perpetrator, but mounting evidence shows that the system protects its own as multiple police officers escape accountability for actions both minor and egregious. In the United States, if anyone commits a crime, it is up to the state to hold them accountable – even if agents of the state are the ones who stand accused. This is part of a long tradition in which crimes are seen not only as crimes against a particular victim, but against the state and society itself. State prosecutors punish suspected criminals by defending the rule of law that binds our society together, not by merely seeking justice on behalf of victims.

This is one of the ideals on which our justice system rests, but in practice this turns out to be a legal version of “#AllLivesMatter” as the victim all but disappears in cases labeled “State v. Defendant,” leaving the quest for justice in the hands of a state attorney. These public prosecutors don’t always dole out justice evenly, however, and throughout history minority victims have faced huge obstacles in gaining any modicum of justice. Recently, in police killing after controversial police killing, news cameras have awaited announcements from county prosecutors and state attorneys who have decided not to file charges. More often than not, the state has failed to hold itself accountable.

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Black Lives Matter demonstrators in NYC last November.

This is not surprising. On top of the racial disparities of the Unites States criminal justice system, the fact is that prosecutors work alongside police departments on a regular basis, and as such we should not expect them to suddenly be willing to crack down on police violence. Prosecutors have tremendous power at the early stages of an investigation if they want an indictment, but recent history shows that this isn’t always the goal. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCullough showed as much when he shepherded Darren Wilson’s case into non-existence and then reprimanded the media and demonstrators rather than make any attempt to discipline a police force responsible for preying on the residents of Ferguson.

Even in the rare instance that prosecutors do indict police officers, they face incredible obstacles and costs. When District Attorney Kari Brandenburg first began considering handing down indictments for two police officers for shooting and killing a homeless man in Albuquerque, police began investigating her for allegedly bribing witnesses related to an incident involving her son in an attempt to “destroy [her] career.” Later, when Brandenburg finally did issue the indictments, she immediately paid for it. The next day, when a prosecutor from her office went to investigate a different, unrelated murder, police denied her entry to the scene, citing a “conflict of interest.” Such blatant intimidation and brazen attempts to deny victims justice is only possible because police have so much power in American society and the U.S. criminal justice system.

In the face of such obstacles, we should expect most prosecutors to default to supporting police departments, regardless of the evidence or public opinion. Mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, petitions, speeches, and even a direct line to City Hall have failed to change the course of police impunity in New York as well as Ferguson. Very rarely are indictments handed down for police officers who kill people in the line of duty, and even more rarely are they found guilty.

In the absence of criminal indictments, the families of victims have tried to seek some semblance of justice in civil court.  Just in the last year, the relatives of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford III, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, and many others have filed or considered filing civil suits or wrongful death claims against those responsible for their loved ones’ murders. However, while these lawsuits may win the families of victims some compensation for their loss, there is little done to actually hold their killers to account.

Protesters in Union Square this April.

Protesters in Union Square this April.

When civil suits are filed against police officers for excessive force or other forms of misconduct, the police officers themselves seldom pay. The penalty often doesn’t even come from the police department at all, but rather from the city’s municipal coffers. The Baltimore Sun released an investigative piece last September – spread widely in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s murder in Baltimore this spring – that found that over one hundred people have won court settlements against the city’s police department in the last four years alone (this represents only one third of the 317 lawsuits filed against Baltimore police in the same time period). The city spent $5.7 million in pay outs in addition to $5.8 million in legal costs defending officers.

Little to none of this money comes from the police officers in question, however. According to the Baltimore Sun investigation, “an agreement between the city and police union guarantees that taxpayers will pay court damages” in cases in which officers were following department guidelines on the use of force, and “in such settlements, the city and the officers involved do not acknowledge any wrongdoing.” There is some degree of restitution, but no accountability and no incentive for police officers to change their behavior. From the police officers’ standpoint, even when found guilty, nothing changes.

Most recently, the City of New York reached a $5.9 million settlement with the family of Eric Garner in order to avoid a civil lawsuit. However, this money won’t come from the police department, and as a result will not give any disincentive to the NYPD – even though the officer who killed Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, did so using a chokehold maneuver banned by the department. Pantaleo remains unindicted and at his desk job, and other officers are well aware that there is no punishment for breaking the rules and killing unarmed civilians.

In a study [pdf] of such lawsuits across the country, legal scholar Joanna C. Schwartz found that “between 2006 and 2011, in forty-four of the seventy largest law enforcement agencies across the country, officers paid just .02% of the dollars awarded to plaintiffs in police misconduct suits. In thirty-seven small and mid-sized law enforcement agencies, officers never contributed to settlements or judgments.” In a summary of her findings, Schwartz states that during this five year time span:

Governments paid approximately 99.98% of the dollars that plaintiffs recovered in lawsuits alleging civil rights violations by law enforcement. Law enforcement officers in my study never satisfied a punitive damages award entered against them and almost never contributed anything to settlements or judgments— even when indemnification was prohibited by law or policy, and even when officers were disciplined, terminated, or prosecuted for their conduct.

With such protections in place, filing civil suits against police officers only hurts the cities that employ them. While there is hope that such actions would encourage cities to discipline such officers and do more due diligence in police training, hiring, and other responsibilities, this isn’t always the case. In Baltimore, while some officers were forced to resign, many kept their jobs even after being found liable in court because the department’s internal investigation cleared them. Even the state judicial system was secondary to the police departments’ own institutions – this reinforces the idea that police are above the law in nearly every possible way.

If public prosecutors won’t indict officers, and city governments shield them from the costs of civil suits, how can they be held accountable?

In the case of Tamir Rice, the twelve-year-old boy shot in Cleveland for carrying a toy gun in a park, there may be an answer.  In early June, more than six months after Rice was killed by Officer Tim Loehmann, the Cuyahoga County Sherrif’s Department concluded its investigation and handed over its findings to county prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty, who will present the findings to a grand jury to determine whether or not to proceed with indictments.

While everyone else is awaiting the grand jury’s decision, community leaders and activists in Cleveland have taken the initiative and asked a judge to issue an arrest warrant. By doing this, these community leaders are trying to circumvent the process that we have all seen unravel in the cases of other victims of police violence, from Staten Island to Ferguson. According to the New York Times, “Ohio law allows anyone with ‘knowledge of the facts’ to file a court affidavit and ask a judge to issue an arrest warrant. If approved, the arrest would be followed by a public hearing, and community members said that was preferable to allowing prosecutors to make the decision in secret.”

This attempt to secure a private prosecution rather than one through the state prosecutor’s offices may allow Rice’s family to have more control over the indictment, and may force Officer Loehmann to actually face accountability – or at least public scrutiny. If the tactic yields any success at all, it will be an important step towards attaining justice and give hope to those struggling to end police impunity.

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Such private prosecutions are incredibly rare in the United States, but they can be found in other parts of the world. In fact, private prosecutions have played a critical role in modern history as the foundations on which the emerging international justice movement has been built. In her book The Justice Cascade, political scientist Kathryn Sikkink points to human rights prosecutions in Greece, Portugal, and Argentina as beginning the shift towards individual accountability for serious state crimes like torture – a shift we continue to see today on the international stage.

In Greece, the first human rights prosecutions were held after the right-wing government was replaced in 1974. Just a month after the transition, Alexandros Lykourezos, a Greek lawyer who had returned from exile, initiated private prosecutions against military government leaders for treason for overthrowing the democratic government seven years prior. He was followed by others who filed charges against officials for torture and for the murder of students in the Athens Polytechnic uprising. According to Sikkink, “the private prosecutions both forced the government’s hand and relieved it of the burden of having to initiate prosecutions itself.” This brought about justice even in the face of government officials who did not want to focus on accountability for their predecessors.

Soon after, Argentina tried the leaders of the right-wing government that had tortured, murdered, and disappeared thousands of leftists and alleged communists in its Dirty War. Just two years after the junta stepped down in 1983, President Raúl Alfonsín’s government prosecuted several junta leaders. But it was everyday citizens and their use of private prosecutions that charged almost three hundred military officers for their actions during the authoritarian years.

When the expansion of accountability led to the attempted Easter Coup in 1987, Alfonsín issued amnesties for members of the junta to satisfy powerful criminals and prevent a return to the dark years of military rule. The strength of the military had forced the government to step back through its use of force and intimidation. Years later, however, the citizens of Argentina grew tired of impunity and once again used private prosecutions to find ways to hold torturers and murderers accountable.

Photos of those disappeared by the military junta commemorate the Dirty War in Argentina. (Photo by Pablo Flores, via Flickr)

Photos of those disappeared by the military junta commemorate the Dirty War in Argentina. (Photo by Pablo Flores, via Flickr)

Led by the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, an association of mothers and grandmothers whose children had been kidnapped and disappeared by the military junta, civilians began to push for true accountability in Argentina. In addition to torture and murder, there were many cases in which murdered communists lost their children, who were given away to military families to be raised away from “subversive” influence. The mothers’ association argued that the guilty military officials had never been charged with abducting children, and as a result had never been granted amnesty for such acts. After a decade of state-sanctioned impunity, the authoritarian leaders were back in the dock thanks not to the government’s prosecutors but to citizens determined to see justice carried out.

In these countries, as in Cleveland, private prosecutions served as a channel through which victims can seek not only compensation for their loss but true justice in the courtroom. As Sikkink states, “in a judicial system with strong private prosecution provisions, like that in Argentina, victims can insist that a prosecution continue, even when the state prosecutor would like it dropped.” In Cleveland, the Reverend Jawanza K. Colvin, a pastor and one of the community leaders bringing forth the charges, stated that “as citizens we are taking this matter and the matter of justice into our hands.” Walter Madison, a lawyer for Tamir Rice’s family, explained that “here we are taking some control of the process as citizens.” This is a democratic effort to do what democratically elected governments cannot – rein in police violence by ending impunity.

Just as private prosecutions helped victims find justice for torture and murder under right-wing authoritarian governments in southern Europe and South America, private prosecutions offer a new avenue to accountability for victims of police violence, among other prevalent crimes – especially for the more vulnerable in our society. While perhaps different than a state campaign of torture and murder, police violence in America is an issue with a long history and tragic consequences for America’s minorities. To many people of color, the difference between the two issues is probably not very big. For this reason, the actions of activists in Greece and Argentina are more than a sufficient parallel to efforts to hold police accountable for their actions. Private prosecutions are the link that ties them together.

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This method of bypassing the state is not new, but it is novel. As Noah Feldman explains, an Ohio state appellate court ruled that private prosecutions were legal in 1957, and in 1960 a state law was passed codifying the practice.

Feldman begins his analysis feeling uneasy about whether we should applaud such actions or not. “The law… would tend in the long run to give an advantage to families with greater means to greater political clout. They, after all, would have the resources to collect affidavits and go to court,” he says. “Tamir Rice’s family has that capacity because this case attracted national attention and the help of clergy and civil-rights leaders. But the families of other, less heralded victims might not be so fortunate.”

Feldman is right that our society is unequal, and that we shouldn’t expect a provision such as private prosecutions to be any different. As much as private prosecutions would give the victims of police violence, rape, and illegal foreclosures a chance to put cops, rapists, and bankers in jail, those in power would also have yet another tool which they could use to discipline the vulnerable. But we shouldn’t convince ourselves that they don’t already do this. The nation’s rich and powerful already have all the tools – one of which is the state – on their side. That’s why police impunity, rape culture, and unregulated capitalism are the norm and accountability for their perpetrators is the exception.

If we can bypass the state in these early stages, however, we could at least remove one part of the system that protects the powerful and ignores the downtrodden. Sure, those with the backing of executive boards and police unions would still have the best lawyers, but a public that was committed to accountability could rally behind victims of our society’s major ailments – inequality, racism, sexism. Private prosecutions could address issues of structural violence by indicting those responsible for carrying out direct violence and forcing the issue to be discussed in the open.

Despite this worry, Feldman closes his editorial by saying that “prosecutors’ offices are always going to be tempted to go easy on the police with whom they must work. Ohio’s law deserves to be copied – not just by a few jurisdictions, but by all.” Indeed, private prosecutions should be an option for the most underprivileged in our society to seek justice.

In the weeks and months that follow, Cuyahoga County’s justice system will be the next battleground for the struggle to hold police accountable. But whether County Prosecutor McGinty’s grand jury finds reason to indict officer Loehmann or not, the people have spoken, and they have asked a judge to issue indictments regardless. Just like in other countries plagued by state violence of one form or another in history, Cleveland now has a chance to move past impunity and towards real accountability.

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.

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.

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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.

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