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 final 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): You raised the issue of male victims of sexual crimes during the northern Uganda conflict close to the end of the prosecution phase of the trial. Why did you feel it was necessary to do so?
Joseph Akwenyu Manoba: For starters, amongst our clients, we have victims of sexual and gender-based crimes. And therefore I think it was incumbent on us to bring this to the attention of the court within the confirmed charges against Dominic Ongwen and in our filing I think we made it very clear that we were not asking for these victims to come and tell their stories outside the confirmed charges but within the framework or the context of the decision that confirmed charges against Dominic Ongwen. So, we wanted the court to know that there are individuals, male individuals,that suffered from sexual and gender-based violence. Normally, of course, the perception is that it is only women that suffer these sexual and gender-based crimes. But for this conflict it turns out that there are many men that suffered this type of violence and many of them spoke to us openly about this. And so, I think it was our duty to ensure that our clients’ interests were represented. Of course, our concern was that we wanted the world to know, we wanted the victims to know that we were not in this conspiracy of silence where whatever they suffered would not be shared. We wanted the court to know and acknowledge or allow for these victims to come out and tell their stories because it would go a long way in helping them to recover from the horrific experiences.
Immediately after this decision [rejecting our request] was communicated to us, we spoke to our clients. I don’t know how best to describe the change in these individuals, in the sense that there was very high level of disappointment if I may say. Even though our clients were not allowed to present their evidence, as time has passed, we have noticed that they are more active in the community meetings that we convene and I believe this is because they were able to talk to us candidly about what had happened to them. In a way it was empowering for them to confide in us. [Editor’s note: for more on this topic, see our previous post.]
Meaning that the opportunity that we gave them to extend our listening ears has gone a long way in helping these individuals heal from their own unfortunate experiences. So, I think the prosecutor, or the prosecution, may have missed out on this because if the prosecution had done more investigations perhaps they would have arrived at the same position we did.
But if we try and relate this to what Francisco was saying earlier in relation to your question about why victims should not be able to raise some of these things when they arise. If the prosecution has missed a certain issue, should it not be the case that these issues cannot be brought up by victims’ counsel within the latitude of the confirmation decision? I think in that sense I would support the idea that it is obvious that in such a situation you would expect a victims’ team to raise these issues because they represent victims who have suffered from these crimes. Therefore, if the decision that confirms charges against an accused person has within its latitude the possibility of the court allowing witnesses to testify then why not? The truth needs to come out so that people know that men were also victims of sexual and gender-based crimes.
Francisco Cox: I think that what Joseph mentions is a perfect example of the role of lawyers for victims. As he said, it is a taboo subject. Not many men are willing to recognize that they were victims of rape and I believe it is the level of trust and confidence created by our team in these meetings that allowed people to come forward and tell their story about this, which as we all know is not easy to do. So probably maybe they would have been candid or maybe they would not have, had the prosecutor tried to investigate this issue. But since we are their lawyers they wanted this to be known by the court and striking it down then felt like the court was not interested in hearing what had happened to them. So that is why we insisted. However, our second submission on this subject was also rejected. But at least we have the clear conscience or calm conscience that we tried to represent the interests of our clients in the best way possible.
Manoba: And I think the issue of trust here is very significant because I think it is because of the trust that we have built with the clients that we represent that I believe we were able to get these individuals to speak up. Because remember in the application processes they did not outline this (sexual and gender-based crimes) as one of the things they suffered. But it has taken time to develop this level of trust with them and through that trust these individuals were able to speak out to us. And you would be surprised if I told you that some of these individuals were willing, actually, to speak to our female colleagues—to narrate their stories to our female colleagues—even when they were advised that they had the opportunity to speak to male people in the team. They still opened up to our female colleagues and told this story. I think it goes a long way in showing how much you can do when you build trust with your clients.
IJM: The trial is ongoing but there’s a question of expectations of the victims in this particular trial and more broadly speaking victims of the northern Uganda conflict. What in your view should happen to address those expectations?
Cox: Well, we hope for, first, that Dominic Ongwen is convicted and held accountable for the crimes that he committed. We have tried to be as realistic about reparations as we can and to address those kinds of expectations. What is interesting to note that victims’ expectations during this trial relate not only to reparations but to justice as well. They want the person that committed harm against them to be convicted. I remember at least one client saying that they want it to be done in a fair manner so that he had his lawyer, his defense. This is something as a lawyer that you can say but you do not know if people outside of the system believe, which is that the decision that comes out of a process that has respected the rights of the accused has more weight and is stronger in allowing victims to move on with their lives.
So, I think it is interesting that a lot of people have said that they want justice. When you ask them what justice means to them they say, “Well, you know I want this person to be convicted of crimes he was responsible for.” That is really interesting, because it is not only about reparations. But of course, there is the expectation that reparations will be given, due to the amount of and level of harm that our clients and the communities have suffered. That will not be an easy phase. We believe it will be very difficult. Firstly, because of the amount of people participating in this case and the overall victim population in general, but secondly also because of the kind of harm suffered and how profound it is. There are elements of peoples’ lives that were broken which are very difficult to reinstate, like community life and we hear a lot of how respect for elders and traditions have been lost in a certain way. So that is going to be a difficult job.
Manoba: Your question extended to victims of northern Uganda that we do not represent. Although we have not consulted outside the people that we represent, at the same time I think that this trial in itself is, the first trial of any of the senior commanders of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army). Perhaps, it might be the only trial amongst the top-most responsible commanders. I believe it is not just the four locations of Abok, Lukodi, Odek, and Pajule that Dominic Ongwen is believed to have perpetrated crimes. There are other places that some people have spoken about where they believed Dominic Ongwen was responsible for carrying out attacks. So, in that context I think that if Dominic Ongwen was found guilty by this court then I think it would be a significant finding for the court because this trial would demonstrate clearly that there is a need to end to impunity where people wielding guns can will go and do what they want to do. Waste life, waste property and, you know, destroy livelihoods of people without being held accountable.
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.