Making history, Intl Criminal Court convicts former Uganda militia leader of war crimes, crimes against humanity

Dominic Ongwen, a former commander with the Lord’s Resistance Army that terrorised areas of northern Uganda for decades, has been convicted by the International Criminal Court of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Sentence is yet to be passed. The judgment broke new ground in several ways, both in terms of the crimes of which he was convicted, and the involvement of communities in East Africa, affected by the long-running civil war, who had been helped to feel involved in the process of the trial and who listened to the court’s decision via a radio or television link in sometimes far-flung areas.

Read the summary of the verdict

For days, the court itself and human rights organisations had previewed the awaited verdict that was to be given at the International Criminal Court in The Hague on Thursday 4 February 2021.

The ICC was to deliver its verdict on the crimes with which Dominic Ongwen, a former commander with the Lord’s Resistance Army, had been charged. They included war crimes and crimes against humanity, and involved murder, rape and other crimes involving gender-based violence, all allegedly committed during the decades when the LRA was engaged in an horrific civil war in the northern part of Uganda.

On the day itself, Ogwen sat impassive, masked and in an immaculate suit, as the court read out the crimes with which he was charged - almost unspeakable atrocities. In the end, via a judgment of well over 1000 pages, he was convicted on 61 of the 70 counts, including some crimes which were a first for the court. But the matter is still a long way from finalised: while the court is still to pass sentence, Ogwen’s lawyers say they are determined to appeal, and this would presumably apply to both conviction and sentence.

‘Extreme suffering’

The unanimous verdict was read by the presiding judge, Bertram Schmitt, watched by his two colleagues. He said the court had heard from witnesses of the ‘extreme suffering’ that the people of northern Uganda experienced during the time that the LRA was active in this region. The LRA saw the people living in government-established camps as the enemy, and they were to be killed because they did not support the LRA in its fight against the government.

During this time, many thousands of children were abducted into the LRA and used in efforts to terrorise the people. Similarly, many women were abducted and used as sexual slaves and domestic servants.

Ongwen himself was abducted by the LRA when he was about nine years old, and the court said it was aware that he too suffered much in his childhood and youth. ‘However, this case is about crimes committed by [Ongwen] as a fully responsible adult and as a commander of the LRA in his mid to late twenties’, during which time, he rose quickly through the ranks of the LRA to the rank of brigadier.

Not forgotten

In its judgment, the court was careful, wherever possible, to give the names of victims of Ongwen’s crimes. ‘These victims have a right not to be forgotten,’ said the court. ‘They have the right to be mentioned explicitly.’ Sometimes, the victims’ names were known to the court, other times they were simply referred to as ‘a girl found in the river’, ‘a woman shot in the mouth’ or ‘Beatrice’s son (his body was found in a sack)’.

As Judge Schmitt read through the crimes committed against the LRA’s victims of which Ongwen was convicted, people in many parts of the world were listening to his comments and findings. Among them were people in the parts of Uganda where the LRA had been active. They listened on the radio or watched via television. There had been a strong effort to involve these communities, some of whose members had given evidence in the case, or who knew people killed or were otherwise affected, and to ensure that they fully understand the court’s process and findings at each stage of the case so far.

Sad pattern

Some of the evidence referred to by Judge Schmitt was almost too painful to listen to. As to the behaviour of the government soldiers who were to guard the civilians sheltering in the camps, the court commented on ‘the sad pattern that the government forces were not able to protect [them]’ and that the soldiers ‘quickly fled’, leaving the civilians defenceless.

In relation to the attacks on four camps housing civilians, and the killing and abductions that followed, the court found that Ongwen had committed ‘a number of war crimes and crimes against humanity’.

‘Forced marriages’

But in addition, the judges found him responsible for ‘sexual and gender based crimes’, both committed directly by him, and that he permitted or encouraged in relation to other members of the LRA.

Ongwen’s ‘forced marriages’ were declared to be a crime against humanity. This was because the court considered that ‘forced marriage’ fell under the category of ‘other inhumane acts’ in terms of the Rome Statute and thus as a crime against humanity.

‘The conduct underlying forced marriage is not fully captured by other crimes against humanity, such as sexual slavery or rape’, crimes for which Ongwen was also responsible, said Judge Schmitt.

‘Forced pregnancy’

The court further found that he committed the crime of ‘forced pregnancy’, something that was both a crime against humanity and a war crime. ‘This is the first time that the crime of forced pregnancy is considered by a trial chamber of this court,’ he added.

The court found that Ongwen and other LRA leaders were involved ‘in a coordinated and methodical effort to commit sexual and gender-based crimes against women and girls in the Sinia brigade [where they were based].’ LRA fighters abducted these women and girls and took them to the brigade where they were systematically abused.

‘Fully responsible’

On the difficult question of Ongwen’s moral responsibility, given his own background as an abducted child soldier, the court declared that it found him ‘fully responsible for all the crimes’ of which he had been convicted.

There was no evidence to support the claims by his defence that he suffered from ‘any mental disease or disorder’ during the time of these crimes.

The overwhelming picture, far from showing any mental problem, was of someone ‘in full possession of his mental abilities’. Moreover, some of his attacks, on women, for example, had been in private, with no one else threatening him.

‘No Puppet’

‘He was not a puppet on a string,’ said the court. ‘Thus, there exists no ground excluding [his] criminal responsibility. His guilt has been established beyond any reasonable doubt.’

Read the full judgment

  • Submissions and reply on sentence are to be with the court by mid-March after which the judges will give their decision on sentence.