In 1986, following a guerrilla campaign directed against the government of Milton Obote and its Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA), the National Resistance Army (NRA) under Yoweri Museveni seized power in Uganda and established the National Resistance Movement (NRM) government, taking over from the brief presidency of Tito Okello who had seized power from Obote in 1985. A key to these guerrilla attacks was regional identity. Yosweri waged his militant campaign with support from his region in the Southwest and from the central South of the country, where there was a widespread aversion to what was perceived as Northern domination. Attacks and assertion of control over the Acholi areas of Uganda by Yoweri and his militant group eventually led to resistance, most important of which was the Uganda People’s Democratic Army (UPDA), composed of former UNLA soldiers.
After Yoweri’s victory in 1986, a cult led by Alice Auma grew in popularity with rebels. Auma, who eventually died in Kenya in 2007, led a group of followers, composed of almost 18,000 soldiers, who sought to overturn Yoweri’s government. She practised spiritual healing with blends of Christian and tribal ideas that made her very popular amongst uprising rebels. Although Auma’s cult failed to achieve its goal by the end of 1987, her legacy motivated other militant insurrectionists such as Joseph Kony and Odong Latek. Following Odong’s death in armed conflict, Joseph rebranded his group of rebels as the “Lord’s Resistance Army” (LRA).
Continued aggression with guerrilla warfare tactics against the government by the LRA, led notably by brigade commander Dominic Ongwen, forced the government to initiate a four-month-long military operation, called the Northern Operations. Unfortunately, the hostility and violence between the military and the insurgents only antagonized and alienated non-combatants. Eventually, the government was forced to enter negotiations, while simultaneously arming the non-combatants, regarded as the “arrow brigade” for self-defence. This made way for increased aggression from the LRA and forced the government to take a step back.
Nevertheless, a ceasefire was negotiated between the LRA and the government in 1994. Some time afterwards, President Museveni abandoned peace talks following military intelligence reports suggesting the LRA was building capacity for larger plots in the guise of peace deals. President Museveni also avoided negotiations for any new peace talk as the political unrest in the North provided him with a political advantage over other political opponents. Meanwhile, the LRA continued to gain more territory in the North of Uganda; even forming bases in Sudan. This displaced and isolated almost half a million non-combatants. The isolated civilians or internally displaced persons (IDPs) concentrated near towns and trading centres.
Natural resentments towards these IDP camps were met through hostility from the LRA, that resulted in regular military defeats that continues to this day. Continued tactical attacks to military posts, and civilian shelters, most notably the attack in Atiak that led to the death of 300 civilians caused an international uproar.
By the 1990s and following 9/11, the Sudanese government paved the way for the “Iron Onslaught” or “Iron Fist” incursions from Uganda. In 2002, the joint military campaign with 10,000 Ugandan troops on the ground, and logistics and air support from the United States’ military destroyed several LRA strongholds in Sudan and North of Uganda; eventually recapturing lost territory. Joseph Kony and his senior militant commandants, including brigade commander Dominic Ongwen, in foresight of capture, fled their hideouts but continued tactical small-unit insurgency strikes in civilian domains.
On the 8th of July 2005, Pre-Trial Chamber II of the ICC issued arrest warrants according to Art 58 of the Rome Statute against Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen. In 2013, the US offered USD 5 million for information on Ongwen that eventually led to his arrest. On 6th February 2015, the charges against Ongwen, who had been taken into ICC custody in 2014, were severed from charges pressed by his militant associates – severed from the Kony et al case. On 23rd March 2016, Pre-Trial Chamber II issued its decision conforming the charges against Dominic Owngen and committing him for trial. Thereafter, on 2nd May 2016, the case against Ongwen was referred to Trial Chamber IX.
International Criminal Court’s Decision
The ICC Trial Chamber IX comprising of Presiding Judge, Judge Bertram Schmitt, Judge Péter Kovács, and Judge Raul Cano Pangalangan, analysing the written submissions and oral hearings before it, found that the accused, Dominic Ongwen, aged 46 was guilty, beyond reasonable doubt of the following crimes:
- Assault against an ordinary civilian population as such, murder, attempted murder, torture, enslavement, an outrage upon personal dignity, pillage, destruction of property and persecution; committed in the context of four specified attacks on IDP camps in Pajule (10th Oct 2003), Odek (29th April 2004), Lukodi (on or about 18th May 2004) and Abok (8th June 2004);
- Sexual and gender-based crimes, viz., forced marriage, torture, rape, sexual slavery, enslavement, forced pregnancy and outrage upon personal dignity he committed against seven women, who were abducted and placed into his household;
- Other sexual and gender-based crimes he committed against girls and women within the Sinia brigade, viz., forced marriage, torture, rape, sexual slavery and enslavement;
- The crime of conscripting children under the age of 15 into the Sinia brigade and using them to participate actively in hostilities.
The Chamber, in its 1077-page judgment, held that these crimes were committed in the context of the armed rebellion of the LRA against the government of Uganda. The LRA, including Dominic Ongwen, perceived as associated with the government of Uganda, and thus as the enemy, the civilians living in Northern Uganda, particularly, civilians living in the government built IDP camps. The Chamber concluded that Dominic Ongwen was fully responsible for the aforementioned crimes. That is to note that the Chamber did not find evidence that would have suggested that Dominic Ongwen suffered from any kind of mental disease or disorder during the period relevant to the charges or that he committed the crimes under any sort of duress or threat.
The verdict may be appealed by either of the parties to the proceedings within 30 days after the notification of the Judgment was made public. The Chamber shall impose on Dominic Ongwen, in due course, the sentence for the crimes he committed following the appropriate sentence advice by the Prosecutor; the Defence for Dominic Ongwen and the legal representatives of the participating victims. Although the ICC’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, does not have provisions for the death penalty, it may sentence Dominic Ongwen up to 30 years of imprisonment (and under exceptional circumstances life imprisonment) and/or a fine. Besides, a phase dedicated to the reparations of the victims would be open.
A copy of the Court’s judgment can be found here.
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