Log in

Dominic Ogwen: Judging a child soldier is like squaring the circle

Dominic Ongwen

Dominic Ongwen

12 February is the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, also known as "red hand day". The verdict issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against Dominic Ongwen last week reminds us that this plague also hit Uganda during the darkest years of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda.

The mixed feelings his conviction triggered among the population highlights the moral and legal dilemma of judging a child ...even when he's grown up. The time is now ripe to embrace reconciliation as it is key to the healing process in northern Uganda.

If international days mostly remain incognito, the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers is particularly important in Uganda, especially a few days after the conviction of Dominic Ongwen.

This former LRA top commander, has been found guilty of 61 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including the forced conscription of children during armed conflict. No need to run through the long list of his gruesome misdeeds to imagine their cruelty and the pain of the victims and their families.

He is the first ever Ugandan standing trial before the International Criminal Court. His case was brought before this court in The Hague by the Ugandan authorities in 2004 to help them bring justice for the crimes of the LRA war.

This conviction represents a breakthrough for international justice in Uganda and the world. It also represents an important milestone for international law as it sets a precedent on how a former child soldier can be tried.

Victims ‘expectations

Many victims and their families had been waiting for this judgement for years. Most of them have welcomed the decision with great relief. This trial and this long awaited judgement is of paramount importance for the victims who have suffered his crimes first-hand. His conviction can't be considered as an end, but should rather be seen as a first step to recognize their pain.

We can't turn a blind eye on what is still needed towards reconciliation in the region. The international justice principles are based on accountability and criminal sanctions, which is quite different from the values of the traditional Acholi justice system (Mato Oput) based on forgiveness and social restoration.

Moreover, the ICC being based far away in The Hague makes its justice little tangible for the victims. Some victims associations are of the view that neither an international court such as the ICC, nor a national court such as the International Crime Division of the High court, where another LRA warlord, Thomas Kwoyelo, is being tried at the moment, or even the Ugandan Amnesty Commission should try LRA crimes on behalf of the affected communities.

Few voices call for at least partial amnesty based on the fact that he was abducted as a young boy, forced into violence and brainwashed to become a uncompromising LRA warrior. Some also state that considering these extenuating circumstances might be a better way to contribute to the healing process.

However, the judges dismissed these considerations mainly because he had refused to come clean once an adult. He had kept on committing these offences and his behaviour was reported to be extremely violent even with nobody watching over his shoulder. The Judges therefore ruled that there are no grounds that exclude the responsibility of Dominic Ongwen in the committed crimes.

No doubt these arguments will influence not only the sentence to be pronounced in the coming months but also the redress, reparations and compensations for the victims as well as the very sensitive question of the social reintegration of the former child soldiers who have been granted amnesty.

These diverging opinions among civil society, victims and experts raise many questions: What is the place of past inflictions in judging grown up child soldiers? Dominic Ongwen was abducted when he was 14 and then rose through the rebel ranks to become one of their warlords.

Can a child, fallen into the hands of the rebels as a victim, be held accountable for these atrocities? How to deal with their guilt? How can one judicial trial balance conflicting claims of victimhood (that of Ongwen vs that of his victims)? This shows the complexity of judging a victim turned perpetrator, especially a child.  

A much needed healing process 

The above questions may never be solved once and for all, but the answer most certainly has to do with expanding our definition of justice in order to encompass more than its prosecutorial form.

Today, it seems obvious to condemn the use of child soldiers in conflicts. This has not always been the case though and many victims are still living proof here in the country.

Thousands of Ugandan former child soldiers have become adults now. Their scars are still deep, even after so many years. Dominic Ongwen and his fellow child soldiers are a stigma from the past in a post LRA Uganda. He is the face of this disturbing phenomenon of recruiting, training and using child soldiers during those violent years.  

Thanks to civil society organisations, an important peace and reconciliation process has been initiated in northern Uganda. Organisations like ‘Avocats Sans Frontières’ (ASF), funded inter alia by the Belgian government, work on bringing justice closer to the victims.

They do so by walking the victims and the population through the cumbersome procedures of national and international justice or simply by broadcasting the audiences of the trial on screens in the affected communities. Thanks to their victim-based approach, they help internally displaced populations during the conflict recover their land rights or help victims claim reparations for example.

Other important actors in the healing process are the ‘Centre for Children in Vulnerable Situation’ (CCVS), set up by 3 Belgian universities to promote psychosocial well-being by providing psychotherapeutic support services to war-affected children, youth, their families and communities living in vulnerable situations; and WAPA, the ‘War-Affected People’s Association’, which fights against the use of children in armed conflicts and supports their reintegration into a stronger community.

In the same vein, the new National Transitional Justice Policy adopted by Uganda in 2019 has to be welcomed. In a nutshell, transitional justice is the response to systemic or widespread violations of human rights.

It includes a range of processes and mechanisms aimed at ensuring accountability, serving justice and achieving reconciliation. It seeks recognition for victims and promotes possibilities for peace and democracy. All of these mechanisms are highly needed in post LRA Uganda. 

As Nelson Mandela once said: “ True reconciliation does not consist in merely forgetting the past … reconciliation is a spiritual process which requires more than just a legal framework. It has to happen in the hearts and minds of people”. Post LRA Uganda is now at a crossroads: mature enough to have a wise and moderate look at its past, a new pioneer in terms of international law and engaged in transitional justice. May these conditions coincide to ensure a peaceful Uganda in the years to come.

Article published on behalf of the European Union Heads of Mission in Uganda, author is Ambassador of Belgium

Comments   

-3 #1 Juwait kali 2021-02-13 18:35
ICC stood for the dead and the raped. Some one has to go down for those atrocities.

What we are blaming the ICC for is that why people like M7 do the same things for years and continue to roam free and also brag about it You cannot shoot unarmed protesters point blank in this century and then tomorrow you form a Government???
Quote | Report to administrator
+3 #2 John S 2021-02-14 10:05
Sometimes it looks like judging someone by their past is so easy especially without considering how they got their in the first place.

Having operated in Northern Uganda between the years when the so called LRA tables were so notorious in the region, I got a chance to experience some of the acts that are forever blamed on Kony and his group but in reality were being done by people that will never be blamed at all.

The day Dominic was forced into the LRA group is the same day he saw his mother being murdered in broad day light!

Now, imagine such a boy and what he went through while in the jungles with that notorious group, that means he got raised and inspired by the commanders to be what he became thereafter.... Now, why would this so called ICC have no one to care about what Dominic went through as a child but be quick to judge him for what he did to other kids!? Truly, it's a case of the "Blind judging the Blind".
Quote | Report to administrator
-2 #3 Juwait kali 2021-02-14 10:36
Children are children in a bracket, but some kids are naughtier than others. Is there a line to be drawn?
Quote | Report to administrator
+2 #4 kabayekka 2021-02-14 14:34
John S you have a point. "Having operated in Northern Uganda between the years when the so called LRA tables were so notorious in the region, I got a chance to experience some of the acts that are forever blamed on Kony and his group but in reality were being done by people that will never be blamed at all."

Certainly Europe and its history has gone through all these inhumane wars but they formulated this international court only to consider cases of inhuman crimes made from 1990 up to this time 2021! Silly is it not?
Quote | Report to administrator
+7 #5 Lysol 2021-02-14 21:10
Mr Rudi, if the ICC was present back in the 80s, one of the darkest pasts in Uganda history, which you failed to mention, the current leader would have been in jail, because of using child soldiers to capture power.

Ongwen who peacefully surrendered to the ICC was sacrificed by one Malaaya Bensouda as she was on her way out of the ICC.

The ICC has no credibility for it selective justice practices, by only tackling some Africans while turning blind eyes on others who are powerful.

Rubi, you seems to have belittled and disrespected some African traditions(like Mato Oput) and yet many of you applauded the South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation.

Was it because it involved many of your kins and ancestors? The ICC will only be respected if it charged any big fish with crime
Quote | Report to administrator
+2 #6 Lakwena 2021-02-15 14:11
While many gloat about the damnation of Dominic Kyeswa (Ongwen) being both a victim and villain of child-soldier, nobody wants to make reference to Gen Tibuhaburwa and the NRA who used child-soldiers (the kadogo) as human shied to his current absolute power.

In other words, what are the stories of the NRA child-soldiers? Like Dominic Ongwen, many of them are now in their late 40's. Gen Tibuhaburwa is the context where the Child-soldier phenomena in Uganda starts and ends.

Apparently Dominic Ongwen's case has smoke screened/overshadowed the NRA war-crime committed by Gen M7; vicious use of child-soldiers and whose number only god knows: how many dead and alive.
Quote | Report to administrator
+2 #7 Lakwena 2021-02-15 14:17
Mr. M7 being a Materialist, Author and Master of violence that he is; used mindless children like human shield (biological substance) to execute his dirty war and/or war propaganda in Luweero.

In other words, the Luweero debacle needs to be declassified so that Gen Tibuhaburwa & Co. are brought to book.

I am sure whenever anybody tries to resurrect queries how the NRA child-soldiers came into being, Gen Tibuhaburwa breaks into a cold sweat.

This is because there are photographs (him posing with combat uniformed, child-soldiers) and audio clips/bites about his war-crime statements like (massacre).
Quote | Report to administrator
0 #8 Akot 2021-02-16 14:12
Quoting John S:
Sometimes it looks like judging someone by their past is so easy especially without considering how they got their in the first place.

LRA tables were so notorious in the region, I got a chance to experience some of the acts that are forever blamed on Kony and his group but in reality were being done by people that will never be blamed at all.

The day Dominic was forced into the LRA group is the same day he saw his mother being murdered in broad day light!

imagine such a boy and what he went through while in the jungles with that notorious group, that means he got raised and inspired by the commanders to be what he became thereafter....

why would this so called ICC have no one to care about what Dominic went through as a child but be quick to judge him for what he did!?

Truly, it's a case of the "Blind judging the Blind".


Thanks.
Quote | Report to administrator
0 #9 Akot 2021-02-16 14:22
Quoting kabayekka:
John S...

Certainly Europe and its history has gone through all these inhumane wars but they formulated this international court only to consider cases of inhuman crimes made from 1990 up to this time 2021! Silly is it not?


Thanks!

ICC & EU brings to justice victims of Kony, Museveni...thus assure these demons are protected & no one they abducted will ever run away from them now!

Did ICC not bring U. Kenyatta who had nothing to do with killings of Kenyans while Kibaki, Odinga, who caused the inhumanity were left free?

ICC not cleared Ivory Coast ruler & others as 'thank you' to these criminals, for messing up their countries & people!

With this last ICC inhuman conviction of Ongwen raised by monter Kony, ICC has recognised the jungle Kony illegally occupies 'real country' as ICC punishes those who run away from demons!
Quote | Report to administrator
+1 #10 Akot 2021-02-16 14:28
Quoting Lysol:
Mr Rudi, back in the 80s, one of the darkest pasts in Uganda history, which you failed to mention, the current leader would have been in jail, because of using child soldiers to capture power.

Ongwen who peacefully surrendered to the ICC was sacrificed by one Malaaya Bensouda as she was on her way out of the ICC.

The ICC has no credibility for it selective justice practices, by only tackling some Africans while turning blind eyes on others who are powerful.

Rubi, you seems to have belittled and disrespected some African traditions(like Mato Oput) and yet many of you applauded the South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation.

Was it because it involved many of your kins and ancestors? The ICC will only be respected if it charged any big fish with crime


Thanks!

Museveni, Kony, Odinga, Kibaki..., who used kids/young to kill... are protected by ICC!
Quote | Report to administrator