By Tom Maliti
Joseph Akwenyu Manoba and Francisco Cox represent one group of victims in the International Criminal Court (ICC) trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander. Manoba, a Ugandan, has practiced criminal law for more than 15 years. Cox, a Chilean, has been a criminal defence lawyer for more than 20 years. They represent 2,605 victims, most of whom lived in former camps for internally displaced people (IDP) in the northern Uganda towns of Abok, Lukodi and Odek between 2002 and 2005. It is during this period that the 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity Ongwen has been charged with are alleged to have taken place. Prosecutors accuse Ongwen of having had a role in the attacks on the camps. On August 12, Manoba and Cox spoke to the International Justice Monitor about their work as lawyers for victims. This is the third installment in a five-part interview series. It covers the victims’ views of the trial so far and how they are faring in Uganda as events unfold in The Hague.
International Justice Monitor (IJM): There are a couple of issues you’ve brought out which I’d like to explore. One of them is the issue of the database and efforts to getting, first, the ICC system to prepare a database of the victims that you represent. And that being difficult then you’re now looking at how you can do that external to the ICC system. Why is the database important?
Joseph Akwenyu Manoba: Well, the database is important because, like I said earlier, we are managing a lot of information. The court has an information management framework that it uses, especially the VPRS [Victims Participation and Reparations Section], which is the section responsible for victim participation and reparations. They collect all of the data that is in the victim application forms and manage it in a way that would be useful for the trial processes, including things like allocating certain unique numbers to every individual victim that has been granted participatory rights in the proceedings. They also include information like victims’ villages, their localities, the type of harm they suffered and this kind of thing. Now that is a lot of information. When you’re in a trial process you will need to cross-check certain facts. Without a database it is difficult because all we have is a spreadsheet that has been given to us by the VPRS.
You have to also remember that we are on mission meeting our clients almost on a monthly basis where we consult with victims on particular issues as they develop within the trial process. For instance, we consulted our clients when Dominic Ongwen initially asked to be released, and to attend his trial while not in detention. In simple terms, we needed to consult our clients and ascertain what they thought about this.
Francisco Cox: Also, if you go back to the concept that each participating victim is an individual with his/her own special needs, his/her own history, her/his livelihood affected by the conflict, it is useful and good to have the story of each one of those persons accessible pretty quickly. And yes, we have the information on the application forms, but we know that the manner in which that information was gathered was very quick and not detailed. This was because the time that was given for victims to participate in this case was very short and stopped during the trial. In other cases, victims have been allowed to continue to apply to participate in proceedings. However, the deadline given in this case was extremely short. So, a database allows you to go quickly to know the story of each one of these individuals and what their needs are.
I think there is a misconception; from the start of the trial there is an assumption, “Okay, we have a number. It’s 2,605 people. So, there is a category of victims. And well, people all have the same needs we know. Okay, you need schooling, you need food, you need …” But this is a blanket statement. What we would like to do is to be able to know the story of each one of our clients. This is very difficult because of how geographically spread out they are. So, this is something that we have had to deal with. Sometimes we hear that a participating victim has died and we need to obtain further information. Or if somebody moved, or when we review our records and you say, well, are we seeing the same people or are there some people that we have not met with? How can we follow up to see what those people’s history was, what happened to them? So, I think a database is really useful in terms of getting the story of each individual and ensuring that they are not a homogenous category of “victims of the Ongwen case.”
IJM: So, in terms of this database, the ICC system currently is unable to do it or when you’ve asked it’s taken too long to get a response therefore you’re looking elsewhere?
Manoba: Well, what we have been given is a spreadsheet as I have said. We have engaged the respective offices and it is just that the timing of this database development for the victims’ teams was not urgent. It is given a timeframe. Which means that we have to wait for them to develop the database and until that time you cannot do much as a team. In short, we are on our own. And that is why from the beginning of this case we recognized the need for a comprehensive information management system. We tried to ask if there was a database that would make our work easier and we were told that a spreadsheet was all that was available. Actually, even the VPRS itself does not have a specially built database for managing victims’ information. They use the same kind of spreadsheet that has been given to us. But they recognize the fact that they would also need a functional database system that can help them also work with this kind of information that is generated from the application forms which are completed by victim applicants.
IJM: And you’ve talked about the limits that have been imposed on you in terms of you only have one counsel, one case manager and so on, but you’re two counsel clearly. So how does that work?
Manoba: Well, the limits are defined by the budget. So, a particular team, or let me put it this way, as a result of the decision of the former Registrar granting us legal aid, a specific budget was allocated to us. This decision allowed us to constitute a team comprised of one counsel, one legal assistant, one case manager, and one field assistant. So, it has been up to us since we are two counsel, two legal assistants, and two field assistants to share the budget that is allocated to us, so that we can deliver on our mandate.
I will tell you that we have tried to engage the Counsel Support Section [CSS] to give us clearance on the recruitment of an additional field assistant who is not on the court budget and it has taken us more than a year up to this moment to get a response, and as we speak we do not have a decision on that. We have, as we said, managed to obtain resources from donors, but these people cannot work because we do not have a decision from CSS allowing them to access confidential information. Otherwise it would be in abuse or in violation of particular protocols of the court. So, you can imagine the situation where you have fundraised, but you cannot actually get somebody appointed who is not being paid by the court. That is the kind of situation we are in.
IJM: And then presumably the Office of Public Counsel for Victims [OPCV] are also there to provide you with the support that you need.
Cox: No, the OPCV represents its own clients in this case and is another team representing victims. So, we have not had that kind of relationship I would say, in terms of OPCV providing support to our team. Both the teams work together on issues of mutual concern. However, active support, no, we have not had that type of relationship. What is really interesting about what Joseph was saying regarding how we decided to share the budget, or the salaries is that, at first it was very difficult and it had to come from our pockets. This was because donors, I think correctly, did not want to support us if we had no legal aid. I believe they thought this would send the wrong message to the court that, “Look, if you don’t support a team they will find a way to get funding from outside sources.”
So, at first it was a real challenge because even though they were sympathetic and understood that given the number of clients that we had, to do a proper job, we needed funding. They stated that if they funded us then it would create a precedent that the ICC system does not support external counsel, and the only option would be OPCV. This was something that was especially troublesome in the decision denying us legal aid. You have to understand that legal aid is not for us. I mean, yes, the money ends-up in our budget but it is for our clients, to have meaningful participation. The decision said, “If you go to the OPCV then you have legal aid. But if you go with these guys (Manoba and Cox) you will not have a legal aid.” Fortunately, our clients decided to stick with us and support us.
Manoba: Even with that budget it would be interesting to note, and I guess it is not only for our team, but all external teams that represent victims and defense counsel as well, you definitely have to work hours, in contrast to the court staff. Now this means that there is no annual leave for any of our team members. Not even ourselves. We have no medical insurance. So, if, for instance, I was in the communities and we have, like I was saying, we deal with incidents or situations where we get traumatized ourselves from hearing accounts of our own clients. If we broke down, we are on our own. If something happened in the field, we are on our own. But it does not make sense because we do as much work as any person that is employed full time by the court. But we do not have access to these benefits and it begs the question whether the court, at this international level, should make these distinctions amongst external teams and staff. So, in a way I think it is very unfair—the whole construct of the way the court views external teams that represent victims, and I believe defense counsel as well.
This interview was first published on the International Justice Monitor (IJM) website. It is republished by JFJustice as part of a collaborative initiative between the two institutions.