(Nairobi) – The United States, Uganda, and the Central African Republic should ensure the prompt transfer of a rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In 2005, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Dominic Ongwen for crimes against humanity and war crimes.
On January 6, 2015, US military advisers working with the African Union (AU) Regional Task Force in the Central African Republic received Ongwen into custody. The AU task force consists nearly entirely of Ugandan military personnel. US, Ugandan, and Central African authorities are negotiating Ongwen’s future, media reports say. He should have immediate access to a lawyer and the ability to communicate in a language he understands.
“With Ongwen in custody, the door is open for victims of LRA crimes to see some long-awaited justice,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director. “He should promptly be transferred to the ICC, which has a warrant for his arrest.”
Ongwen, originally from Gulu, northern Uganda, was a commander of the LRA, an armed group led by the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony that has killed, maimed, and abducted thousands of civilians, many of them children, in remote regions of northern Uganda, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic for over two decades. In December 2003, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda referred the LRA situation to the ICC, which opened an investigation into the situation in northern Uganda and issued warrants for Ongwen and four other LRA leaders, including Kony, in 2005. Since that time, three suspects are believed to have been killed. Kony remains at large.
Ongwen was himself abducted into LRA ranks at age 10 when he was on his way to school. Senior LRA leaders gave him military training, and he grew to be known as one of the more ruthless commanders. After Ugandan forces pushed the LRA out of northern Uganda in 2005 and 2006, fighters reportedly under Ongwen’s command and other LRA forces committed vicious attacks and terrorized communities in Congo’s Bas Uele and Haut Uele districts over several years.
The US had offered a reward of up to US$5 million for information leading to Ongwen’s arrest. While the United States is not a party to the ICC, it can assist with the transfer of Ongwen and other ICC suspects to the court. Such action was taken in 2013 when another ICC fugitive, Bosco Ntaganda, a former Congolese army general and warlord, entered the US embassy in Kigali, Rwanda. The Central African Republic and Uganda are both ICC members, obligated to cooperate with the ICC under the ICC’s treaty, the Rome Statute.
Under the Rome Statute, the ICC only prosecutes cases when national courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute. Once a case has been taken up by the court, as in the Ongwen case, it would only revert to national courts on the basis of what is known as an admissibility challenge, in which a state can show that it is investigating and prosecuting him for the same crimes.
In 2011, Uganda established a judicial unit with authority to try serious crimes committed in violation of international law, known as the International Crimes Division. At the same time, a blanket amnesty for any individual who “renounces and abandons … rebellion” remains in effect in the country. This has raised questions about the government’s commitment to prosecuting serious crimes committed in northern Uganda.
“Justice for LRA victims and fair proceedings for Ongwen should be the priority at this time,” Bekele said. “Authorities negotiating Ongwen’s future should respect the ICC warrant. Ongwen belongs in The Hague and any country seeking to prosecute him should then raise the issue with the ICC.”
Ongwen is believed to be the only former child abductee to face charges before the ICC. Judicial proceedings against Ongwen would raise important issues regarding a defendant who was himself a former child soldier, even though the crimes Ongwen is charged with were committed as an adult. Ongwen’s abduction was a war crime, and he was denied parental care and spent formative years under the control of a group notorious for extreme brutality. These are mitigating factors that should be considered during possible sentencing in the event of trial and conviction, and may also be relevant to his legal defense.
“Ongwen is both a victim and alleged perpetrator of LRA atrocities,” Bekele said. “Judicial proceedings need to take into account not only Ongwen’s alleged crimes, but also the LRA’s brutal indoctrination of children and its possible impact on Ongwen.”