There was a time in northern Uganda when it was abominable and unthinkable to talk about pursuing accountability against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). At that time the war was still raging at full force, with the LRA carrying out daily attacks against civilians, abducting children, burning IDP camps and committing countless war crimes and crimes against humanity. Hundreds of people were displaced and forced to live in squalid IDP camps and children could not go to school.
The priority at the time was the return of peace. That is why the International Criminal Court (ICC) met stiff resistance when it issued indictments against five top commanders of the LRA in 2005. With the return of peace in northern Uganda, however, the situation has now changed.
On January 21, the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former top LRA commander, will commence before the ICC at The Hague, Netherlands. Ongwen is the first member of the LRA to appear before the ICC. Out of the original five commanders indicted by the ICC, two have been reported killed in action, one was executed by members of the LRA, and Joseph Kony, their leader and commander, remains in hiding.
Ongwen surrendered to American forces in the Central African Republic on January 6, 2015. Thereafter, he was transferred to The Hague and charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ongwen is the youngest person ever indicted by the ICC for crimes against humanity. At his first appearance hearing before ICC judges, Ongwen confirmed he was a senior LRA commander and stated he was abducted by the LRA at the age of 14 years.
In the initial arrest warrant dating from 2005, Ongwen was accused of seven counts – three counts of crimes against humanity and four of war crimes, including murder and enslavement.
On September 18, 2015, the ICC prosecutor announced that she would charge Ongwen with an additional 60 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The new charges include using child soldiers and keeping sex slaves.
The trial of Ongwen comes at an appropriate time. Northern Uganda has made significant strides in recovery. Former IDPs are permanently resettled in their communities and recovery programmes are being implemented. Much of the infrastructure that was destroyed during the conflict is being rebuilt. Children can go to school without the threat of being abducted, and community members can go about their business at any hour of the day without fear of LRA attacks.
In a nutshell, communities in northern Uganda are enjoying peace dividends, and although full recovery from the conflict is still many years away, the timing is right to pursue justice.
Lino Owor Ogora,
Director and co-founder of the Foundation for Justice and Development Initiatives