(Brussels) – The opening of the International Criminal Court trial of a Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) commander is an important new chapter in holding the rebel group accountable for its brutal crimes in northern Uganda, Human Rights Watch said today.

Dominic Ongwen, a former senior rebel commander from the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, sits in the courtroom of the International Criminal Court (ICC) during the confirmation of charges in The Hague, the Netherlands January 21, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

The trial of Dominic Ongwen, who was abducted as a child and later became a senior LRA commander, will begin on December 6, 2016, in The Hague. The charges will be read, followed by opening statements from the prosecution and lawyers who represent several thousand victims involved in the case. The trial will then adjourn until January 16, 2017, when the prosecution will begin to present its evidence.

“The ICC trial of Dominic Ongwen is a significant first on justice for LRA atrocities,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “The LRA leadership is reviled worldwide for its brutality against Africans, but never before has an LRA commander faced trial.”

Led by the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, the LRA has committed atrocities against civilians for nearly three decades. The armed group has abducted tens of thousands of children for use as soldiers and sexual slaves, and killed and maimed thousands of civilians in remote regions of northern Uganda, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic.

Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in northern Uganda, where the group originated. Charges center on alleged crimes in 2003 and 2004 during attacks on people in four camps for internally displaced persons – Pajule, Odek, Abok, and Lukodi – including murder, torture, enslavement, persecution, and pillage. Charges also include sexual and gender-based crimes and the conscription and use of child soldiers in northern Uganda from 2002 to 2005.

The ICC can only step in when national courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute. The ICC opened an investigation into crimes in northern Uganda in July 2004, following a request from the Ugandan government. The court issued warrants in July 2005 for Ongwen and four other LRA commanders, including Kony, who remains at large. The three other suspects are believed to have been killed in recent years.

Charges are pending against another LRA fighter, Thomas Kwoyelo, before Uganda’s International Crimes Division of the High Court. That trial is expected to open in the coming months.

“The ICC’s trial of Ongwen highlights its role as a crucial court of last resort,” Keppler said. “Victims’ advocates across Africa have urged their governments to support the ICC following recently announced withdrawals by three African countries.”

The ICC has faced backlash from some African leaders since 2009, on the claim that the ICC is targeting Africa. The ICC’s investigations have focused almost exclusively on crimes committed in Africa, but the majority of the investigations came about due to an explicit request or grant of jurisdiction from the government in the country where the crimes were committed – as in the case of Uganda.

South Africa, Gambia, and Burundi announced their withdrawal from the court in October and November. The withdrawals – the only ones the court has faced – have no legal bearing on proceedings against Ongwen, Human Rights Watch said.

In the face of the withdrawals, a number of African governments – including Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, and Tanzania – affirmed their commitment to support the ICC at the ICC’s annual meeting of its members in November. The ICC Assembly of States Parties president, Sidiki Kaba, the Senegalese justice minister, has urged Burundi, Gambia, and South Africa to reconsider their decisions to withdraw from the court, which take one year to go into effect.

With the ICC based thousands of miles from northern Uganda, court efforts to make the trial accessible and meaningful to the local population are especially important, Human Rights Watch said. For the opening, the ICC will have “viewing sites” in the four locations in northern Uganda where the alleged crimes occurred, as well as in Gulu, the largest town in the region, and Coorom, the area near where Ongwen is from. The ICC will also bring local community leaders from Uganda to The Hague to observe the opening, with support from the Danish government.

More than 4,100 people are “victim participants” in the Ongwen trial, represented by two sets of lawyers. Victim participation at the ICC is an innovative feature of international justice that allows victims, through their legal representatives, to contribute to the proceedings, separately from testifying as witnesses. Participation may include questioning witnesses and making submissions on legal and factual subjects.

During the trial, Ongwen will be entitled to protections to ensure the fairness of the proceedings and his rights as an accused. These include the right to a lawyer and the presumption of innocence.

According to available information, LRA fighters abducted Ongwen from northern Uganda into their ranks when he was about 10 and forced him into military training. He rose to become a senior commander. On January 6, 2015, US military advisers working with the African Union Regional Task Force in the Central African Republic, where some LRA groups remain operational, received Ongwen into custody. He was eventually transferred to the ICC.

Ongwen is believed to be the only former child abductee to face charges before the ICC. His status as a former child soldier could be relevant to his legal defense and mitigation in sentencing in the event of conviction, though the crimes he is charged with were committed as an adult.

Human Rights Watch has documented serious abuses by the Ugandan armed forces over the course of its 25-year armed conflict with the LRA, including torture, rape, arbitrary detention, unlawful killings, and forced displacement of its citizens into camps with no protection and minimal humanitarian assistance. The ICC has never ruled out investigation of abuses by Ugandan military forces, but has also never taken such investigation forward. Impunity for abuses by Ugandan forces has been a persistent concern by people in northern Uganda. Regular updates and explanation about the ICC’s approach to those abuses are needed, Human Rights Watch said.

Given the extent of serious abuses allegedly committed by the LRA outside Uganda – including in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan – the ICC prosecutor should consider expanding the investigation into LRA crimes to other areas under the court’s jurisdiction, Human Rights Watch said.

The ICC’s mandate only covers serious crimes committed from 2002 onward.

“Ongwen’s trial covers significant crimes, but does not extend to horrific LRA abuses committed outside Uganda,” Keppler said. “This is a real loss for the LRA victims in Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan.”