Heal the Victims Even Before You Read the Verdict

International criminal justice needs to do more than carry out criminal trials

 Lira, January 2015

 Over nine years have passed since the Pre-Trial Chamber II of the International Criminal Court (Court, ICC) issued and unsealed the arrest warrant against LRA-commander Dominic Ongwen. According to the ICC Prosecutor, Ongwen is allegedly criminally responsible for murder, serious bodily injury and suffering and enslavement as crimes against humanity, and for murder, cruel treatment of civilians, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population and pillaging as war crimes.

 Ongwen either surrendered to US forces or was captured by Séléka rebels in the Central African Republic in early January 2015. After US forces handed Ongwen over to the UPDF there was some speculation as to whether Uganda would transfer Ongwen to the ICC or try him at home. Some even lobbied for Ongwen to receive amnesty under the Amnesty Act, 2000, and to undergo mato oput, a traditional justice mechanisms of the Acholi people.

 We applaud the Government of Uganda for its decision to promptly hand over Dominic Ongwen to the ICC.

Any delay in that regard, as well as a domestic trial, had the potential to re-ignite tensions between the Government, proponents of amnesty for Ongwen and LRA’s victims, who are not only Acholi, but also Lango, Teso, people from West Nile, and others. Further, hesitation as to what to do with Ongwen would have put him in the limelight at a time when the Government of Uganda is finalising the National Policy on Transitional Justice. The handing-over of Ongwen to the ICC allows the Government to keep its attention on the upcoming Transitional Justice process. We anew call upon our leaders to expedite said process and operationalise the National Policy in a way that gives attention to those to who attention is due: the victims.

 The Rome Statute establishes a court with two equally important objectives. First, the ICC strives to successfully prosecute alleged perpetrators of gross violations of international humanitarian law and human rights and second, it attempts to bring justice to the victims of crimes that insult humanity itself. While victims can participate in the criminal trial before the ICC and while a guilty verdict might bring relief, the drafters knew that such symbolism alone cannot be called justice. Along with the ICC they thus designed the Trust Fund for Victims (Trust Fund, TFV) and gave it the mandate to assist victims in ICC’s situation countries and, should a conviction be secured, to participate in reparations programmes for the victims of the convicted criminal.

 With the handing over of Dominic Ongwen, the Government of Uganda has delivered on its promise to enable criminal trials of indicted LRA-commanders. It is now upon the remaining State Parties and other countries to live up to their commitment to benefit victims of crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court as well as their families.

It is pertinent that international criminal justice turns its focus on justice rather than giving prominence to the (alleged) criminal. We call upon the ICC to use its renown and respect to secure funding for victims’ assistance and upon ICC State Parties as well as other countries to make generous contributions to the TFV as well as to victim-driven and victim-centred organisations.

 Victims of the LRA see the hype created around the arrest of Ongwen and hear the word justice uttered by a thousand lips. Yet they wonder whose justice everyone is talking about. Is it justice for them? Will they receive the assistance they require: medical and psychological attention, livelihood opportunities, reparations or answers as to what happened to their loved ones who were abducted and remain missing?

 Victims feel that their plight has been ignored. Why were they not assisted earlier, haven’t they been within ICC’s jurisdiction all along, hurting, hoping, waiting? They likewise feel that the trust they have put in the ICC has been betrayed. After the arrest warrants failed to result in timely arrests, interest in them gradually declined until the ICC decided to scale down the operations of its Uganda Office and even closed the Outreach Section, effective 31 December 2014. Now the victims are afraid that the ICC will try to instrumentalise them as witnesses and then, yet again, leave them to deal with their trauma. The Court and all countries have an opportunity and a responsibility to close this gap of attention given to perpetrators and victims and deliver on its promise to provide justice to those to who justice is due.

 Under international law, an accused has a right to be tried without undue delay while victims have the right to receive timely reparations. In northern Uganda, the latter have already waited for over twenty years. Let international criminal justice heal the victims even before it reads its verdict!

 (If you or your publication would like to reproduce parts of this article, please credit the source. For any questions, contact uganda@africanyouthinitiative.org.)

Initial Appearance Hearing of Dominci Ongwen at the ICC, 26 January 2015


Related Stories

International Criminal Court