Dominic Ongwen at his confirmation of charges hearing in ICC courtroom I on 21 January 2016 © ICC-CPI
Hearings for the confirmation of charges in the case against Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen began in The Hague, Netherlands. War crimes prosecutors are seeking to convince judges at the International Criminal Court to put Ongwen, the alleged commander of the LRA’s senior brigade on trial for 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity but over 1,400 victims’ participation in the case hangs in the balance. Journalists for Justice’s Joyce J. Wangui spoke to Joseph Manoba, one of the two lawyers that have worked with them since 2006 (below). Excerpts:
What is the significance of today’s proceedings for the thousands of Ugandan victims in the case?
The hearing commences victims’ quest for justice for crimes perpetrated against them by Dominic Ongwen as an individual and high-ranking member of the LRA. The LRA violence affected almost everyone in the greater north of Uganda. This hearing however is limited to crimes perpetrated against civilians in Pajule, Lukodi, Abok and Odek IDP camps as set out in the Prosecutor’s Document Containing Charges. Victims of the attacks in these camps, and more particularly those who have been granted status to participate in the proceedings, are our clients.
How are victims taking part in these proceedings?
Victims are anxious to follow the proceedings. During consultations with them, we informed them about the intended screening (on television) of the case. The ICC Outreach Office has undertaken to screen the proceedings through partnering with local organisations. I hope that our many clients can be able to follow the proceedings.
Many years have elapsed since these crimes took place. What effect has this had on the victims’ search for justice?
This hearing, although taking place 10 years after the fact, signifies hope for justice for all victims who are alive. The LRA’s brutality, indefensible violence and outrages against personal dignity, cuts across the entire civilian populations of the greater northern Uganda. If the charges are confirmed and the suspect is tried and convicted, many victims will be glad that impunity is dealt with and then healing can be realized.
What interested you about this case?
After the unsealing of the arrest warrants against the top five commanders of the LRA, including Dominic Ongwen, in 2006 and the subsequent JUBA peace talks, it became apparent, that there was no voice to raise victims’ issues. This time was also a very critical one in the sense that Uganda was having the debate about peace and justice. There were voices on either side but the justice side took a heavy beating because of the fact that the LRA was still active in the country and very few dared to speak about the rights of victims at the ICC.
During this time, I participated in many public outreach sessions to bring victims and communities into knowledge about their rights in the ICC system. My involvement in the Ongwen case is because of my passion for victims’ rights but more fundamentally in my being asked to represent the victims in the proceedings after they learnt about my previous work with victims.
How does this process work?
The [Rome] Statute provides for the rights of victims to participate in proceedings at any stage. The participation is by presentation of views and concerns where these arise in the course of proceedingsthrough legal representatives who have been included on the ICC list of counsel.
Victims nominate their legal representatives in the course of completing a participation form or where a form has been completed and submitted, through a power of attorney. I and my colleague, Francisco Cox, received powers of attorney between September and December 2015. We have 1,435 victims who have designated us as their legal representatives.
In the Court’s decision of November 27, 2015, the Single Judge recognized our designation and also prescribed victims’ rights which include filing submissions and appearing at the proceedings.
What prompted the victims to choose their own lawyer?
Every victim has the right to choose his or her legal counsel. This notwithstanding, victims wanted someone who knew their experiences and suffering; they wanted someone who was Ugandan and living in the country; they also wanted someone who spoke the local dialects, among other things.
I cannot say if victims knew of the Office of Counsel for Victims lawyers. For those victims who had not designated a lawyer, the Single Judge used his discretion to appoint OPCV as a common legal representative for them.
What is the impact of the crimes on the victims?
Victims may have suffered similar crimes but were impacted differently. All the stories of our clients strike me. It’s a painful experience that these victims have gone through. The survivors of the LRA atrocities all have a will to see better. It is seen in their stories or accounts of suffering, escaping from their captors and in their overwhelming desire to see individuals like Dominic Ongwen held accountable for their actions.
Have you met mothers of the children who were abducted by the LRA rebels and never returned?
These mothers live in pain and fear of not knowing the truth of what has happened to their children. The mothers are bitter and demand justice.
A decision by Judge CunoTarfusser confirmed your appointment and that of Fransisco Cox as representatives of 249 members of the group of 1300 victims. But the judge also ruled that this group is not entitled to legal aid as their lawyers are not officially appointed as common legal representatives and instead were chosen by victims. Why is this decision controversial?
I think, the decision speaks for itself and one needs to read it and make sense out of it. I personally think that once a victim’s right to appoint a legal representative is recognized by the Chamber like in our case and especially considering we indicated to the Court that we would seek legal aid from the court to be able to better represent our clients, then the Court should be mindful of this and grant access to legal aid.
Our clients have appointed Francisco Cox, a Chilean lawyer, and I. I invited him to work with me given his experience and passion for victims. It does appear a contradiction if you recognize the right of a victim to appoint their preferred choice of legal representation but deny the lawyers access to legal aid.
Our clients have demonstrated faith in us by retaining us as their legal representatives and this is notwithstanding that we have informed them about the Judge’ decision to deny us legal aid. You would want to know that we have been on the ground to provide updates and also consult with our clients who are spread out in many villages. We have done our filings accordingly.
Are victims content with being represented by foreign lawyers?
The Court did a survey to understand victims’ views on legal representation. The findings are in a report which should be available on the court website. Most victims mentioned what I have stated already herein including the fact that they would need a lawyer who is Ugandan, understands what they experienced as victims,and speaks the local dialect, etc.
What is the composition of these victims in terms of age, gender, location and crimes perpetrated?
We have children, adults and elderly among our clients. Both men and women are included. These are located in various villages nearest to the former IDP camps of Odek, Abok and Lukodi.
Could you highlight some of the suffering these victims endured?
Victims complain about loss of livelihoods as a result of the pillage of the property especially animals that were used to aid tilling and cultivation of land; Several families are orphaned and have a huge burden of providing for their needs; inability to provide and support for education of children; Psychological trauma; disability occasioned by violence and mutilations; physical pains from carrying heavy loads of pillaged properties; lost property etc.
Does working for free affect how you represent victims?
I have to consult with my clients and also participate in the proceedings and other fora. This means I must travel to the several villages where these crimes were perpetrated; pay for accommodation for the duration of the time of the consultation; employ assistants and drivers; hire a vehicle for field consultations; etc. All these require facilitation in order to be able to realize these obligations.
While the lack of resources may not impact the quality of work, it impedes the ability to reach out to as many victims as possible to collect their views because each victim has the right to consult with his/her lawyers.
Some of the charges against Ongwen include keeping sex slaves in a rebel army.
Dominic Ongwen allegedly abducted children including young girls and women. These girls or women were subjected to sexual violence including being distributed amongst the LRA commanders. Ongwen as one such commander is said to have forced girls to be his wives with threats of violence and control over these girls, which effectively made them his sex slaves.
What were these attacks and how did they manifest?
These attacks were against civilians in a wide spread and systematic manner. The attacks would manifest in shooting from every directions; indiscriminate killings of civilians; property pillaged; homes torched to ashes; children abducted; babies thrown to their death and or abandoned in the bush; and mutilations.
Some victims who were conscripted as child soldiers were forced to become perpetrators of the crimes meted on civilians, including Ongwen. Do they have a double status as victims and perpetrators?
Many children were abducted and indeed committed crimes. Any person who is a child (15years of age) cannot be prosecuted for crimes that were committed while he/she was still under age. The ICC considers that at this age the child cannot be held criminally responsible. Ongwen is being prosecuted for crimes committed between July 1, 2002 and December 31, 2005, when he was an adult and was in a position to make a decision to escape or enjoy power as an LRA commander. Ongwen may have been a victim and abducted as a child. He however became an adult and had opportunity to escape or take advantage of the amnesty process like other commanders and abductees.
For many of the victims, justice is closely associated with punishment.
Some victims have told me that if the ICC cannot try Ongwen, he should be taken to them because they can deal with him.
Is there a reparation framework in Uganda? If yes, how does it work?
There is no reparations framework currently obtaining in Uganda. This has been one of our concerns as victims’ advocates considering that many victims do not know who the author of their victimization is. In this situation the Government of Uganda is obliged to pay reparations to victims.
In Uganda, the ICC’s Trust Fund for Victims is operational. Has it lived up to its billing?
The ICC Trust Fund for Victims has had some projects where some victims have benefited from medical surgeries amongst others.
Should the Pre-Trial Chamber commit the case to trial, your workload will increase. With no funding from the ICC, how will you work?
We hope that at the next stage of court proceedings, the chamber will reverse the decision and grant us legal aid and probably appoint us as common legal representative for all victims.