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‘He Needs To Die For His Sins’ or ‘Forgive Them But Never Forget Them?’

Justice in the case of a former child soldier

Hague Institute Photo

Dominic Ongwen, the former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) Commander in Uganda, surrendered to U.S forces in January of this year.  Last month, the ICC opened its scope of charges against Ongwen to include 60 crimes, in addition to the initial 7 charges, including crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Following these abuses, there has been considerable public outcry for justice to be served. But what do we – both society and victims specifically – mean by ‘justice?’ Many studies have examined this issue, often concluding that there can be no single solution in response to atrocities committed by people in power. Some individuals seem to need reconciliation, others require compensation, and sometimes the public demands retribution through harsh punishment including the death penalty. This commentary seeks to contribute to this literature by reporting on research that is being conducted at The Hague Institute for Global Justice that examines justice preferences among victims and the larger Ugandan public in response to the upcoming prosecution of Dominic Ongwen.  More specifically, the analysis will argue that other factors – in this case his previous child soldier status – play a significant role in justice preferences.

The larger research study aimed to understand what Ugandan citizens, both direct victims and others, felt needed to be done in order to achieve justice following the LRA conflict. Perceptions of various mechanisms, including compensation, prosecution by the ICC and prosecution by the International Crimes Division were investigated through semi-structured in-depth interviews. In order to conduct the field research, Malini Laxminarayan, Senior Researcher at the Hague Institute, travelled to Kampala to train the local data collectors. As a result, 71 respondents were interviewed throughout the country.

Joseph Kony took over the Holy Spirit Movement in 1986, a spiritualistic and militaristic rebel movement in response to President Museveni and his control over northern Uganda, later changing its name to the LRA. The LRA claimed to defend the rights of the marginalized Acholi people of the North, though in reality they committed the most atrocities against this group. Kony claimed to believe he was acting as a spiritual messenger of God, tasked with saving the Acholi people. During the first 20 years of conflict between the LRA and the Ugandan government, more than 30,000 children and youths were abducted by the LRA to become soldiers and sex slaves, and over 1.7 million individuals were forced into camps for internally displaced persons. The LRA has been described as one of the most brutal groups in the world. Throughout the time that the LRA was active, many unsuccessful peace negotiations failed which seemed to exacerbate violence in the region.

While Kony has yet to be apprehended, Ongwen surrendered to U.S forces in the Central African Republic – a ‘historic blow to the LRA’s command structure.’ Recently, ICC judges stated that it would be desirable and in the best interests of justice to relocate the confirmation of charges hearing to Uganda. This decision, however, was recently rejected by the Ugandan authorities on grounds that such relocation would worsen tensions leading to upcoming elections to be held early next year in Uganda.  The opening of the confirmation of charges hearing is scheduled to take place in The Hague on January 21, 2016.

One factor that complicates the case – or at least the victims’ sense of justice – is the fact that Ongwen was kidnapped as a child and forced to become a soldier in the LRA. Although it has been reported that Ongwen was less abusive when compared to other LRA commanders, and that he is now being tried for one of the crimes he fell victim to (i.e., enslavement), it is unclear what role this factor will play in his defense. For those seeking justice, however, it is clearly a factor that should be taken into consideration, as illustrated by the findings of the research project.

“He should be forgiven because he was abducted when he was still a child. Being a younger man, anything can be imposed in his mind and he would do it according to how they want him to do it. He had been doing it out of ignorance, but now he has realized that what he has been doing is wrong, that is why he came out and handed himself over to the ICC. It was not his intention to be part of the LRA, so let him be forgiven and allow him to come back.”

At the same time, respondents sometimes indicated a more punitive attitude towards Ongwen, despite his early victimization.

My opinion and I think [of the] majority of people in this area is that Ongwen should face trial at the ICC and be sentenced to death. Okay yes he was abducted but why did he again accept to go and kill? Why did he allow that? He should have found a way of escaping and if they killed him on the way, that would be good instead of remaining there and killing many people.

Ongwen’s status as a former child soldier also may have implications on how and where people believe his case should be handled. Many respondents believe this is a reason to promote reconciliation over more punitive outcomes such as imprisonment or even execution.

I want him tried from within the community and it is based on the fact that he was taken as a child soldier, he could be forgiven, he was taken as a child.”

Furthermore, seeing the case as one that could be relatable to many other child soldiers – who could have been anyone – led to a stronger perception that the case should be handled locally, by Ugandan authorities rather than an international body – whether this means through informal measures or the formal justice system.

I feel this issue should be handled in Uganda and I feel they should be fair to Ongwen because he was abducted when he was young. I heard when you are abducted and try to escape, they club you to death, so to keep alive, he had to obey the orders of his commander. He should be charged for manslaughter but not murder because he did not do it intentionally.”

Let him be brought so the community handles it at that level instead of handling it from The Hague at the ICC. This is when the informal sector will work even better in Dominic Ongwen’s case because he was a child; he matured from the bush and matured seeing those things as normal from the bush and later he became a problem…For the law, it is from the time when he clocked 18 years old and whatever happens will be his own [responsibility], which may not be true because he grew up under a different environment.”

When commenting on how local justice is best to judge based on knowledge of the background of the offender, one person stated,

Before the ICC makes any decision, the brothers of the accused, church leaders, other people from that community know Dominic right from childhood and they can say that this child was like this, but because he was adapted and initiated into rebel activities that is why he became like that. So forgive him and start to rehabilitate him again.”

As was noted, however, the case will be prosecuted in The Hague, which might appease some of the individuals who were surveyed for the study. Yet the research indicated that for others, the ICC is not a proper means for dealing with Ongwen, both for practical reasons (e.g., having witnesses testify), but also due to the belief that offenders are living under very good circumstances.

Actually when they come, they are treated like kings. Even right now I can say Ongwen is enjoying himself at the Hague; actually he is now better off than he was in the jungles of central African republic; he is wearing clothes he has never put on, he is sleeping well, eating well, he is happier, but for the victims they are still suffering up to now.”

There is no way you can convince me that somebody has been imprisoned for 5 years in Hague, I will not believe you, I will think that maybe this person is doing business there! People will not be convinced.”

These statements would suggest that one solution is to continue and expand on the methods of outreach that are already being conducted, in an effort to illustrate that justice is in fact being served. Indeed, many of the respondents were in favor of the ICC as the most appropriate adjudication body. Trials from a distance, however, do require extensive outreach, as has been demonstrated by previous cases that have come up in other countries where international tribunals have been exercising jurisdiction. Previous criticisms of the ICC’s outreach in Uganda, in addition to other countries, would also suggest a need for greater attention to this issue.

The research results – as has been the case in past studies examining how best to deal with the past – reinforce the pessimistic view that justice is unlikely to satisfy everyone, as some call for the death penalty, others for apologies following informal processes and still others primarily wanting to know what happened and why. In such a quest for justice, it becomes important to understand the local and contextual factors, whether it is a defendant who was abducted as a child, the role of religion, the severity of the abuses or the economic losses suffered, before attempting to rectify the past. This brief examination presented one such factor, and further analyses will be conducted in the context of this research project.

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