Dominic Ongwen

(Brussels) – The transfer of a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander to the International Criminal Court (ICC) is an important opportunity to achieve a measure of justice for crimes committed by the rebel group, Human Rights Watch said today. Dominic Ongwen arrived in the Netherlands on January 21, 2015, to face charges of four counts of war crimes and three counts of crimes against humanity committed in 2004 in northern Uganda.

“The transfer of Dominic Ongwen to the ICC is a major step for those affected by the LRA’s long history of crimes,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “All eyes will now be on the ICC to deliver fair, meaningful justice that will resonate with the LRA’s victims.”

The LRA, led by the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, has been fighting the government of Uganda for nearly three decades. The armed group 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.

On January 6, 2015, United States military advisers working with the African Union (AU) Regional Task Force in the Central African Republic received Ongwen into custody. After negotiations with the governments of the Central African Republic and Uganda, Ongwen was transferred to the custody of AU forces on January 14. On January 16, he was transferred to Central African Republic authorities in the country’s capital, Bangui, and then to ICC custody in Bangui, where he remained until he was flown to the Netherlands.

Information concerning procedures prior to Ongwen’s transfer to the Netherlands have yet to be publicly disclosed. Human Rights Watch believes Ongwen should have benefited from information concerning the charges against him and access to counsel.

Ongwen, originally from Gulu, northern Uganda, is a former child soldier. The LRA abducted him into their ranks at age 10 and gave him military training. He rose to become a senior commander implicated in serious abuses across central Africa.

In December 2003, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda referred the LRA situation to the ICC, which opened an investigation into northern Uganda and issued warrants for Ongwen and four other LRA leaders, including Kony, in 2005. Since that time, three of the suspects are believed to have been killed.

Kony remains at large, and his fighters remain a serious threat to civilians in the border region between the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and northeastern Congo, Human Rights Watch said.

In December 2009, troops under Ongwen’s command killed at least 345 civilians and abducted another 250, including at least 80 children, during a four-day rampage in the Makombo area of northeastern Congo. This was one of the worst massacres during the LRA’s long, brutal history. The ICC prosecutor should consider expanding the charges to crimes committed outside Uganda for areas under the court’s jurisdiction, such as Congo and the Central African Republic, Human Rights Watch said.

Judicial proceedings against Ongwen raise important issues regarding his status as a former child soldier, though the crimes he is charged with were committed as an adult. Ongwen’s abduction was a war crime. He was denied parental care and spent formative years under the control of adults who used violence and extreme brutality as a form of discipline and punishment. These are mitigating factors that should be considered during possible sentencing in the event of trial and conviction, and could be relevant to his legal defense.

The ICC has conducted outreach with local populations in northern Uganda, though these activities had recently been suspended due to lack of developments. Outreach efforts should be revitalized promptly with a suspect in custody. Under the Rome Statute, the ICC can hold trials outside its seat in The Hague and in countries where crimes have been committed. The ICC should explore conducting at least some proceedings against Ongwen in northern Uganda, or in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, to help promote affected communities’ access to the proceedings, Human Rights Watch said.

With Ongwen’s transfer to the ICC, he will have an initial appearance at the court, where the judges will verify his identity and determine his needs for interpretation in the proceedings. The ICC will then hold a hearing to determine whether the charges against Ongwen should be confirmed and a trial should go forward within a reasonable time frame. For the charges to be confirmed, the prosecutor is required to offer sufficient evidence to establish substantial grounds to believe that the person committed the crime.

“Ongwen’s transfer to the ICC does not diminish the importance of focused efforts to arrest Joseph Kony,” Bekele said. “Protection of local communities should be a critical priority for the AU forces, particularly given the LRA’s history of retaliatory attacks against civilians.”