Will the International Criminal Court care about Ongwen’s rotten childhood?

28 January 2015 by Tjitske Lingsma, The Hague (The Netherlands)

Dominic Ongwen, a Ugandan commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), made his first appearance before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on Monday for a pretrial hearing. What now? IJT asked two experts what they expected of this first ICC case against a former child soldier-turned-perpetrator.

Ex-LRA commander Dominic Ongwen surrounded by court guards and his defence lawyer at the ICC (Flickr/ICC-CPI)
Image caption: 
Ex-LRA commander Dominic Ongwen surrounded by court guards and his defence lawyer at the ICC (Flickr/ICC-CPI)

Despite his smart suit, crisp white shirt and matching chequered tie, Ongwen looked uncomfortable and out of context in the dock at the ICC. He spent most of his life fighting in the jungle as a high-level commander in Joseph Kony’s notorious LRA rebel group, waging wars of brutal terror for over three decades. Ongwen is accused of horrendous atrocities in Uganda and neighbouring countries.

Two uniformed guards helped him place his headphones and gave indication when it was time for him to stand and speak. Ongwen cast an uneasy look at the public gallery where journalists, diplomats and human rights activists sat. A victim later told IJT she quivered with shock the moment she saw him in court.

When ICC Judge Ekaterina Trendafilova sought to verify his background details, Ongwen replied politely. Some answers revealed new information. “I was born in 1975 and I was abducted in 1988. I was taken to the bush when I was 14 years old,” he stated. It was long believed that Ongwen was abducted at age 10, made to watch fellow abductees be beaten, maimed and killed, then forced to become a child soldier, quickly ascending the LRA ranks.

Want to read more?

If you subscribe to a free membership, you can read this article and explore our full archive, dating back to 1997.

Subscribe now

Related articles

article
19 February 2007 by Laetitia Grotti

One year ago on January 6, 2006, the 17 members of Morocco's Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER) were closing up shop after submitting their final report to King Mohammed VI. The Moroccan truth commission had received a flood of compliments from the international community praising the recommendations in its report, especially those advocating legislative and constitutional reforms. One year later, however, the results have been rather mixed.

article
11 September 2006 by our correspondent in Arusha

After having tried high-ranking officers, ministers, businessmen, priests, journalists, local officials and militiamen, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is in uncharted waters. On September 11, the most famous rwandese troubadour of his generation will stand trial for genocide. 

article
23 October 2006 by Christine Chaumeau

China is keeping a polite distance from international criminal justice. Beijing is hardly disinterested, but China does want to make sure that these new global mechanisms are not going to infringe upon its sovereignty by delving into particularly sensitive cases such as Tibet. 

article
United Nations Operation in Burundi disarms rebel forces in Mbanda in February 2005 (Photo: Flickr/UN Photo/Martine Perret)
03 June 2015 by Janet H. Anderson, The Hague (The Netherlands)

Over the last month, Burundi has hit the headlines as the president put himself forward to be elected for a controversial third term, resulting in street protests, thousands of refugees who fled instability and an attempted coup. Behind the issues of elections and constitutionalism are also those of justice following Burundi’s long-running civil war. The international community supported an intensive process of negotiation and the signing of the Arusha Accord in 2000. But in the decade and a half since, its provisions on justice have been debated though never fully implemented.

article
06 November 2006 by Pierre Hazan

France's attitude towards international criminal justice is marked by ambiguity. Paris subscribes to a vision of the world in which international humanitarian law is considered a way to curb violence against civilian populations, but at the same time it is wary of an unchecked judicial system that could end up prosecuting French soldiers engaged in areas where it has old and deep-rooted interests.