Bringing the Lord's Resistance Army to Justice
When someone is on trial for seventy counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, it is extremely difficult to feel any sympathy towards them. This is not necessarily the case in the trial against Ugandan Rebel Leader Dominic Ongwen, however. Ongwen was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) when he was only nine years old and forced to be a child soldier, so in many ways he was a victim of the LRA as well as being a perpetrator of many of their crimes. He was tortured, forced to watch people being killed, and exposed to battle from an incredibly young age. Despite his tragic past, Ongwen faces charges for a staggering number of horrific crimes he is believed to have committed as an adult, as he is a senior commander in an organization that has killed thousands of people, abducted thousands of children, and displaced millions of civilians.
Ongwen is being tried in the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was founded in 2002 in order to try cases that local criminal justice systems could not handle in order to hold people accountable for their crimes and to try and prevent those crimes from occurring again. Despite this admirable goal, the ICC has been criticized in Africa for being a racist and imperialist institution since a disproportionate amount of the cases they try are from the region. Support for the court is decreasing even as they are working to make progress on the international stage. Burundi, Gambia, and South Africa have all announced plans to withdraw from the court, so this high-profile trial provides one last chance for the ICC to prove to the countries that are members of it the sort of good they are capable of and the justice they are seeking for victims of crimes.
Ongwen’s trial is widely considered to be one of the most significant ones in the court’s fourteen-year history, mainly due to the scale of the crimes Ongwen is accused of. Ongwen is one of five senior LRA commanders who were the first people ever charged by the court, but only Ongwen and the LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony, still remain alive today. The LRA is considered such a threat to peace in the region that there is a five million dollar reward for Kony’s capture, but he still remains at large to this day. Ongwen chose to turn himself in last year, saying that he feared that Kony was planning to kill him. Although the organization is believed to have dwindled down to only about a hundred men, the group is still feared throughout all of Uganda, as well as Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic for the terrible crimes they have committed throughout those countries.
If he is convicted, Ongwen will face life in prison, although he has pleaded not guilty. His attorneys are likely the use his own abduction and time as a child soldier as a defense, as he was reportedly taught he had to fight for the rights of the Acholi people, an ethnic group in Northern Uganda Kony is a member of. Although the childhood Ongwen was forced to endure is appaling, the carnage and terror the LRA has left in its wake is difficult to dispute and someone needs to be held accountable for the millions affected. Opening statements have been given in the case, but the prosecution is not expected to start presenting evidence until January. Hopefully the verdict of this case will allow for both closure and justice for those affected by the crimes committed by the LRA, while also reminding countries of the importance of international institutions such as the ICC. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights pleaded with countries to remain part of the ICC, stating, “We face a choice. We can safeguard our societies by standing firm on the principles of justice, which anchor this institution. Or we can cast away the moorings of law laid down to save the world from horror.” Hopefully countries choose to think twice about the importance of organizations like the ICC, and it is likely the outcome of Dominic Ongwen’s trial will have a significant effect on that decision.