Dominic Ongwen, a former rebel commander in Uganda, is convicted by the ICC for war crimes and crimes against humanity

Published : February 06, 2021 11:08 IST

Dominic Ongwen in the courtroom of the ICC during the confirmation of charges hearing in the Hague on January 21, 2016. Photo: MICHAEL KOOREN/AFP


The conviction of Dominic Ongwen, a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander, by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity, on February 4 marks the culmination of the first trial against Uganda’s rebel militia group. The landmark case of Ongwen pertains to his criminal record of over two decades, a sordid story of a child-victim-turned-perpetrator following his abduction in the 1980s. The four-year trial, however, focussed on the brutalities orchestrated by Ongwen in the refugee camps of northern Uganda between 2002-2005.

The LRA’s brutal campaign began in Uganda in the late 1980s under its founder Joseph Kony with the aim of establishing a theocratic state based on the Biblical Ten Commandments and the local Echoli tradition. The guerrillas soon spread to South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic. In Uganda alone, an estimated two million people were displaced in the fighting between the Ugandan forces and the rebels between 1987 and 2006. According to the United Nations, an estimated 100,000 people were killed by the LRA, another 60,000 children were abducted and more than 200,000 people displaced.

Ongwen, Kony and three other top LRA leaders were indicted by the ICC. After evading the Hague court’s 2005 arrest warrant for a decade, Ongwen turned himself over to the special United States forces in 2015 in the Central African Republic and was subsequently transferred to the ICC’s custody.

Ongwen was one of the key members of “Control Altar”, which represented the core of the LRA leadership that masterminded the atrocities. Backed by testimonies of hundreds of witnesses and victims, the prosecution’s account pointed to Ongwen’s direct involvement in mass looting of property and animals, burning of homes with families and abduction of boys and girls to be engaged as forced labour.

When various charges, including the conscription of children under 15 years, torture, rape, sexual slavery and murder, were read out in his opening trial in 2016, Ongwen denied all of them, saying that they related to the LRA and to Kony and not to him. His defence drew attention to the several mitigating circumstances such as Ongwen’s abduction as a child and brutalisation, arguing that he was therefore a victim rather than a criminal.

The presiding judge at the Hague, Bertram Schmitt, however concurred with the prosecution that there was overwhelming evidence of Ongwen being in full possession of his faculties when the crimes were unleashed. Moreover, he did not take advantage of the opportunities to escape the LRA. With the conviction of Ongwen, Kony remains the last surviving militia head yet to face justice.

The ICC has been attacked by many African states for adopting a rather selective approach to crimes against international justice in view of the high concentration of the court’s investigations on conflicts on the continent. However, the Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s commitment to the court’s jurisdiction has been far from consistent. Museveni had initially requested the Hague court to prosecute the LRA, which had sworn to overthrow the regime in Kampala. But subsequent to the indictment of Ongwen and other LRA commanders, Museveni refused to hand them over to the court, insisting that the government would try them under the country’s traditional methods of peace and reconciliation. Again, during his 2016 inauguration for a fifth term, the President criticised the ICC as “a bunch of useless people”, prompting a walkout by U.S. and European diplomats, who viewed it as an insult to the institution and the victims of abuses from a state which was a party to the court’s founding Rome Statute.

Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir next?

The verdict against Ongwen will inevitably turn the pressure on the transitional government in Sudan to extradite the former dictator Omar al-Bashir to the ICC. The country’s decision vis-a-vis Bashir, who has already been indicted by the court for crimes of genocide in the Darfur region, will serve as a test of the military’s willingness to facilitate a democratic transition. The Hague’s court’s morale will receive a huge boost should the Biden administration reverse Washington’s recent hostile posture under Donald Trump and lift the sanctions against its senior prosecutors and other functionaries.