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 first 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): So maybe to start off with I’ll ask, what are the views of the victims of the trial so far?
Joseph Akwenyu Manoba: What we have heard from our clients who are based in former locations of Abok, Lukodi and Odek is that the trial and the evidence that has been presented seems to be representative of what they have experienced or what they suffered at the time the attacks were committed in the respective IDP camps. The main concern, however, has been that the trial is dragging and for many of them it doesn’t make sense that the trial drags on … because in their view Dominic Ongwen is guilty from the very first day. So, this trial shouldn’t even be happening. [W]e have of course labored to explain to them that a trial has processes and we have to virtually go through all the processes so that he can have a fair trial and justice can be seen to be done for him as well.
Francisco Cox: I think what’s been interesting is that people have maintained their interest in the trial despite … what Joseph says and it’s true that constantly they’re saying, “Well, when will this end?” but they keep on. When we ask how many people have seen the screening and if they’re following, most hands go up. So, it’s really interesting that despite the fact that they are so far away from The Hague [where the ICC sits] they maintain the interest on how justice is being done.
They are also very able. We question what they think of what they’ve seen of the trial and what the position of the defense is, like it was impossible to escape, or how difficult it was to escape [the LRA]. And they themselves say, “Well, among us there was a lot of people that escaped as soon as they wanted,” and what this show is that Dominic Ongwen wanted to go up in the ranks. They question about the rights and due process. But once you explain it to them they seem to understand and agree with that.
So, it’s been a very interesting process to see how interested they are in the case despite the time that has passed and how far they are away from the whole thing. The other thing that we have noticed is that among the communities there’s a lot of people that were victims that could not participate and express their concern, and the division that [this] sometimes causes among the communities of those people that were able to apply and those that weren’t able to apply. That’s something that we think should be kept in mind by the court if reparations phase comes so that they open a meaningful participation process, so more people that were affected by the conflict can participate. Because this has a lot of interest in the communities beyond our clients.
IJM: And at a personal level how are your clients faring? During the court process you’ve raised issues of their livelihoods and witnesses have testified to the fact that their livelihoods have been affected. Physically they still carry wounds of the conflict. Their psychological needs that are manifested during the trial so far. And then they have children and the needs of those children seem to dovetail with the fact that their parents or parent, because many of them are single parents, suffered in one way or the other from the conflict.
Manoba: Well, I think many of them are trying to cope with the situation that they find themselves in. We have had a couple of individuals that we saw were suffering seriously even when we spoke to them. But having had the opportunity to speak to them and give them opportunity to tell their accounts to us and also in our own way to try to broadcast that experience in terms of the questioning of the prosecution witnesses we see that they have responded quite positively in the fact that now you will notice individuals can speak in public when before they couldn’t because of their own traumatic experience in the bush or whatever happened to them. So, at the individual level you have both those experiences where individuals are trying to recover but at the same time many of them have to struggle to cope with the situation where livelihoods were destroyed, and they just have to fend for themselves to be able to live their life because the government hasn’t really done that much in terms of trying to provide, let’s say, counseling services for many of them. The concentration of government activities has been mainly around infrastructure development—schools, health centers and that kind of thing—without really addressing livelihood concerns.
Cox: What was interesting for us when we worked with our expert [Teddy Atim] and the report that they gave is how bad [the victims] are in terms of their livelihood and how much they lost. I remember when I first started reading the application form and not knowing that reality of Uganda and the importance that animals would have, and cattle has, in the way of life here in northern Uganda. And this was something that was brought [out] vividly by our expert and shows that these communities are very worse off than other communities in northern Uganda, which is pretty hurt compared to the rest of Uganda. And I think this is something that one can see and what people constantly in our meetings are bringing up—how their lives changed in so many ways for them to be able to sustain themselves; the difficulties that they have in education and paying the school fees. And something that repeats itself constantly is how many of the abductees feel that their lives were completely broken because they couldn’t have an education. And you see that even when they have to sign the attendance or anything like that how many people can’t sign their names and have to use their thumbs.
So, I think this is an opportunity for the international community to really make a difference, not just pay lip service to victims, but to really take into consideration what victims’ needs are. And I think there’s a lot of hope from our clients in the system and in the court and then we really hope that this expectation is not defrauded.
It’s really a moment where the International Criminal Court can have a real legitimacy among people that suffered the consequences [of crimes] and allegedly why the system was created. So, I think it’s really important that they take into consideration the real needs of our clients and not what they think are the real needs of our clients. That’s why we tried to document this with an expert report, because we couldn’t bring all of our clients to The Hague. It was a way for the judges to hear and see what our clients are going through and where exactly are the most needed and what are the needs of these people.
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.