Ongwen’s Guilty Verdict Must be Followed by Credible Reparations for Victims
By Sharon Nakandha and Taegin Reisman
Last week’s judgment in Dominic Ongwen’s trial before the International Criminal Court (ICC) gives credence to the phrase “the wheels of justice turn slowly but grind exceedingly fine.” Four long years after the trial began in earnest, and nearly two decades since some of the crimes were committed, a panel of three judges unanimously convicted the former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is the court’s first conviction related to crimes in Uganda, and the first ICC verdict for the crimes of forced marriage and forced pregnancy.
The trial has showcased the voices of individual victims of Ongwen in an unprecedented way, such as that of an elderly woman named Gwentorina Akite. Gwentorina was forced to carry heavy loads, beaten, and left for dead after being abducted by the LRA from an internally displaced persons camp in Abok, in Ngai subcounty. The attack on her camp, ordered by Ongwen, killed 25 people, including five children.
In total, it is estimated that the conflict led to the violent killing or forcible disappearance of up to almost 200,000 people and had a lasting impact on the well-being of individuals and communities in northern Uganda. The trial has ensured that the terrible human cost of the conflict between the LRA and Ugandan government is written into history by shedding light on the extent of the LRA’s crimes, including sexual crimes and child abductions—which Ongwen was a victim of himself.
Now, concrete redress in the form of reparations is necessary for victims to perceive the trial as just, rather than merely an abstract academic exercise. Financial compensation and other reparative measures, such as scholarships, could have an immeasurable impact on individual lives. For example, it could allow former child soldiers deprived of education to return to the classroom. It could also enable ostracized mothers with children born in captivity to rebuild their lives and those of their families.
However, how comprehensive these reparations will be is yet to be determined. Managing the expectations of victims will be crucial, as it is already evident that they exceed what the court can realistically provide with its limited Trust Fund for Victims. Moreover, as previous ICC precedents demonstrate, reparations proceedings can be extraordinarily time consuming and technical. For example, delays can arise when consulting large numbers of victims, collecting a significant amount of documents, and rolling out an approved plan.
Other efforts at securing reparations for victims of the conflict domestically have fallen short. Although it falls upon the Ugandan government to ensure that victims’ rights to reparation are realized as a matter of international law, it has not yet taken any serious steps to that effect. No domestic reparations program for human rights violations exists, even though, in June 2019, the Uganda government passed a national transitional justice policy envisaging the implementation of one such scheme. Furthermore, the High Court International Crimes Division (ICD), a domestic court set up to try grave crimes, has not made significant progress in prosecutions, and hence, further delayed victims’ access to redress. This has left many in limbo, with some receiving one-off government compensation for their losses and occasional piecemeal support through some of the government’s development programs.
Finally, any reparations ordered by the ICC will leave out a number of victims, including those in Uganda who were subjected to LRA crimes outside of the geographic areas covered by the trial. Other victims who fall outside the scope of this judgment, such as those who suffered atrocities committed by government soldiers and victims located across the border, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, must also continue to wait for another opportunity for justice.
Nevertheless, the Ongwen judgment comes at a key moment for ICC, which has been subject to increased scrutiny about its effectiveness. This is one trial in which the court has demonstrated results and shown that justice is possible, even after years. But most importantly, its judgment contributes to emboldening victims in their struggle for accountability and rule of law in Uganda. As Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said: “These victims have a right not to be forgotten.”
Sharon Nakandha is a program officer for the Africa Regional Office of the Open Society Foundations. She previously worked with the external legal team representing victims in the Dominic Ongwen case.
Taegin Reisman is associate content officer for the Open Society Justice Initiative.