By Susan Kendi
Trial Chamber IX of the International Criminal Court (ICC) today (February 4, 2021) delivered its ruling in the trial of former Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen. Journalists for Justice spoke to Joseph Akwenyu Manoba, one of the legal representatives of victims (LRVs), before the court’s decision. We asked him about his clients’ expectations. Manoba and Francisco Cox represent 2,564 victims who lived in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Odek, Lukodi, and Abok, northern Uganda. This group is among 4,065 victims who participated in the ICC proceedings against Ongwen, who is facing 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged role in the attacks on the IDP camps.
Journalists for Justice (JFJ): As the victims’ lawyer, what are your expectations on the judgment in the trial?
Joseph Akwenyu Manoba: We went through a full trial in which the OTP (Office of the Prosecutor) called a number of witnesses whose testimonies were in large part unchallenged by the defence and pointed strongly to the guilt of the accused. The evidence of the victims corroborates that of the prosecution in as far as the LRA attacks on the four IDP camps are concerned. The LRA killed innocent civilians; torched houses; looted household goods and food; abducted children, women, and girls for sexual crimes; and meted out other forms of violence and inhuman and degrading treatment to abducted persons. The impact of these crimes on the lives of victims has been devastating. The accused, together with other commanders including Joseph Kony, was behind the planning and ordering of the individual attacks as part of a wider plot to achieve LRA intentions. We expect a well-reasoned decision that will deliver justice to the victims for the crimes they suffered. We know that the decision will address the intricate issues that arose, including the defence’s contention that Ongwen was a victim himself and was under duress when he committed the crimes. The defence has claimed that Joseph Kony’s spirits allowed him to read his subordinates’ intentions and, therefore, Ongwen could not escape even when he had several opportunities to do so. As a commander of a brigade, he could have marched his soldiers back home and taken advantage of the amnesty offered by the government, or even during the safe passage arranged by the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF) at the time of the Juba peace talks. The defence has also claimed that Ongwen was suffering a mental disease during the period he was alleged to have committed the crimes and has offered an alibi for him for the crimes in Pajule.
Q: What are the victims’ expectations with regard to the verdict? What are their views on the conviction or acquittal of Ongwen?
A: The victims’ expectations are no different from what I have stated. They will be anxious to see how the Trial Chamber deals with and/or responds to the issues, but more importantly the truth about the attacks. We have not been able to consult with all our clients, but the ones we have spoken with want the court to impose the maximum sentence should there be a guilty verdict because of the seriousness of the crimes perpetrated against them as unarmed and innocent civilians.
If there is an acquittal, we would, of cause, want to hear the reasoning behind the judges’ decision.
JFJ: What are the needs of the survivors (psychosocial, financial, and psychological) – social and gender-based violence (SGBV) survivors, victims with physical injuries, children born out of rape?
Manoba: The victims’ primary desire is to see justice done as an outcome of the trial process. Secondly, we presented an expert witness who had conducted a study among the victims and found that they had been greatly impacted by the violence, so much so that even children born after the conflict are affected. The economic and social wellbeing of victims have been significantly impacted. Indeed victims of SGBV, those who suffered physical injuries, and children born of war have needs and expectations. We are aware that our clients have expectations about reparation, but our responsibility does not include prematurely raising expectations before we have a verdict.
Q: What are some of the challenges the victims are facing?
A: The LRA / UPDF violence in northern Uganda left many households without heads. There are cases of children or young adults being household heads and, therefore, not able to provide for the needs of their siblings – needs such as education, health care, parental care, and housing. Young adults lost out on getting an education because they were abducted and recruited into the LRA, or the insecurity did not allow schooling to go on. They are frustrated and are vulnerable to being manipulated and drawn back into violence. We also know there are some elderly persons who are on their own, with no one to care for them. Some families do not know the whereabouts of their children who were abducted; they don’t know whether they are still alive. It is difficult for such parents. Many victims were made to carry heavy loads and walk long distances. This has affected their health, making it difficult for them to farm their land, yet this is their only livelihood. Traditionally, the Acholi, Lango, and Teso communities and others in the greater northern Uganda, which was affected by the LRA violence, were livestock keepers. Cattle could be sold to meet their needs and they would also be used to plough the fields. Many households lost their cattle both to the LRA and the UPDF and have descended into poverty. There are many challenges that victims still face.
Q: What challenges have you encountered while representing your clients?
A: The mandate of a lawyer derives from the instructions of his client. This means you have to constantly engage the clients and inform them of developments in the trial. You have to have a dedicated and committed team in order to make the victims’ participation in the proceedings meaningful, and so that they can appreciate the court’s processes. One of the biggest challenges is the limitation the court places on victims’ participation. The court believes that allowing too much involvement of victims would create a conflict. This means lawyers cannot address their clients’ concerns before the court.
The trial chamber rejected our request to have male victims of sexual violence testify. It is difficult to explain this to a victim.
We have not had sufficient resources to effectively represent our clients. We could not afford the services of professionals such as psychologists to help a victim when he breaks down as he recounts his victimisation. Sometime we found ourselves taking on such roles.
Also, we are not allowed sick, maternity, or paternity leave. We do not have access to medical insurance, unlike the court’s staff. It is difficult to consult with victims in the field without sufficient resources.
We have to work in a very challenging environment. Northern Uganda has for a long time been dealing with an outbreak of hepatitis B. Prior to Covid-19, we used pens and other writing materials as part of the accountability processes, and therefore exposed ourselves to infection. We do not have medical insurance and there is no support for those who get sick in the line of duty. We have received no support from the court despite our request.
Q: What has been the impact of Covid-19 on the victims and the LRVs?
A: Covid-19 has made it more challenging to constructively engage with our clients. We also believe that it has made the life of the victims more difficult, given the restrictions on communication, and also the impact on the national economy.
Q: What has the government of Uganda done to assist the victims?
A: It has set up several development projects, including Northern Uganda Social Action Fund
(NUSAF) I and II, but they have benefited few individuals. None of our clients has benefited from the projects. Many victims still suffer trauma and physical injuries, loss of property, and other effects of the LRA/UPDF violence.
Q: What has the ICC Trust Fund done to assist victims in Uganda?
A: The ICC Trust Fund for Victims has been actively involved in northern Uganda and has implemented assistance programmes through civil society groups. However, none of our clients has benefited. We have amputees who need to change their limbs every year, but cannot afford to. We have many victims who complain of chest and other body pains because of being forced to carry heavy loads or falling as they ran to safety during the attacks, but none of them has received any support. It is the same case with victims who have cancer and those with bullet fragments lodged in their bodies. The organisations are located far from the villages and most of these victims can hardly raise funds to meet the cost of transport and accommodation as they seek medical treatment.
We found out that the ICC Trust Fund advised the implementing partners to avoid directly supporting participating victims because of the fear that the defence might use the programmes/activities to argue that the fund was influencing victim testimony. Therefore, the participating victims will never benefit no matter how much assistance their country receives.
Q: It is five years since the trial began. Has this had any impact on the victims, their hopes, and expectations?
A: The length of the trial has been a mater of concern for our clients. We have tried to explain the proceedings to them. Obviously, a trial of this nature is not ordinary. Ongwen is facing several charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. There were proceedings to identify the defendant and expand the charges. There were many live and non-live testimony witnesses. The documentary evidence is in thousands of pages. The judges have other cases to attend to and sometimes the defendant cannot be in court. All these things contribute to delaying the trial.
JFJ: Some victims did not fall in the scope of the charges. Do they have any expectations?
Manoba: Again, the verdict will inform the response. If there is a guilty verdict, we expect the chamber to give guidance on whether or not other victims who wish to participate in the reparations proceedings will be granted an opportunity to join the effort. We will wait for the guidance. What is not in doubt is that thousands of individuals didn’t get the opportunity to apply to be admitted to participate in the trial proceedings within the limits set by the trial chamber. It will, not doubt, bear this in mind in the next phases of the proceedings.