Dominic Ongwen, a commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) that for two decades roamed northern Uganda, leaving mayhem and grief in its wake, awaits sentencing after his conviction last week, for war crimes and crimes against humanity by International Criminal Court.
The court returned a guilty verdict on 61 of the 70 counts that Ongwen was accused of. The catalogue of offences is long but its gory details include murder and attempted murder, enslavement, outrages upon personal dignity, rape, enslavement, forced marriage and forced pregnancy, to mention just a few.
As would be expected, the verdict has elicited mixed reactions even within the rights community. Uganda which first sought the indications against the LRA is yet to show its hand.
To the victims and survivors of the LRA’s wanton acts and advocates of justice, Ongwen’s conviction is a blow for accountability by those who visit terror on fellow humans.
Fatou Bensouda, whose tour of duty as ICC Chief prosecutor is winding up, described the verdict as “an important milestone in bringing justice to the people of Uganda. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said the judgement was “a signpost of accountability against impunity.”
To Ongwen’s family and the liberal left, the conviction was underserved. He was as much victim as perpetrator, they reasoned.
The numbers in this case are staggering. It was based on the complaints of 4,095 victims of LRA anarchy, 179 witnesses and experts. The strategy of Ongwen’s defence team was not to rebut the staggering body of evidence, but to try to persuade the court in the Hague and public opinion, that he like his victims, was not fully responsible for his actions having been robbed of his own childhood by the LRA. He did not join the LRA willingly, having been abducted alongside other children on his way to school during the 1990s.
At this point, there is no indication of where the ICC’s ball will settle along the 30-year to life imprisonment gradient that this conviction can attract. At best those grounds can only be a mitigating factor in sentencing.
What really is at stake here, are basic human values. Ongwen was a child when he was abducted. But he was not too young to have picked what his community considered decent. If he was forced to act against his conscience, as a commander he had numerous opportunities to break with the LRA. He did not.
When he eventually surrendered to the Ugandan contingent of an international force in the Central African Republic sometime in 2015, it was probably only because he had run out of options. The court did not convict Ongwen for being a member of the LRA. He was found guilty for the conscious decisions he made as an adult.
His conviction may be justice delayed for his and the LRA’s unknown victims but the verdict should be welcomed for the message it sends. Ongwen was only one of five top LRA commanders that were indicted by the ICC in 2005. Unless there is a supranational mechanism that can bring perpetrators of violence such as Ongwen to justice, there will be no deterrent to stop the cycle of impunity that characterises armed conflict around the world today.