On Tuesday, January 6, 2015, a man claiming to be Dominic Ongwen, one of the Lord’s Resistance Army’s (LRA) top commanders, surrendered to United States military forces in Central African Republic. The following day Ugandan authorities confirmed his identity and explained that U.S. forces where holding him at a military base in Obo. Ongwen’s capture gave rise to controversy regarding the jurisdiction under which he would be prosecuted—the options being Uganda’s own courts or the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, on January 13, a State Department deputy spokeswoman announced, and the Ugandan Army confirmed, that Ongwen would be transferred to the Hague for prosecution under the ICC, who indicted Ongwen in 2005 on seven counts, including murder and enslavement. At first Uganda appeared reluctant to release Ongwen to the ICC, wishing to prosecute him in the country’s own courts instead. Uganda could have exercised its right to prosecute Ongwen because—despite the ICC’s jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes—it is a court of last resort, meaning “it will not act if a case is investigated or prosecuted by a national judicial system, unless the national proceedings are not genuine.” Uganda has pardoned thousands of LRA fighters under a 2000 Amnesty Law and some feared that Ongwen’s “status as both victim and alleged author of war crimes” could have resulted in such a pardon.
At the ICC Dominic Ongwen will be prosecuted for his role as a top commander in the LRA, where he served under the group’s leader Joseph Kony. Ongwen is charged with crimes against humanity, specifically murder and enslavement. According to Article 7(1)(a) of ICC’s Elements of Crimes, in order to prove murder the ICC prosecution will have to show that (1) Ongwen has “killed one or more persons,” (2) that his “conduct was committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against a civilian population,” and (3) that he “knew the conduct was part of or intended the conduct to be part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population.” To prove that Ongwen is guilty of enslavement, under Article 7(1)(c), the prosecution must provide evidence showing that (1) Ongwen “exercised any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over one or more persons, such as by purchasing, selling, lending or bartering such a person or persons, or by imposing on them a similar deprivation of liberty,” as well as evidence proving the same components (2) and (3) stated above.
The prosecution may be able to prove the last two elements of both murder and enslavement. The LRA is allegedly to blame for the mass killings of over 100,000 people, and the kidnapping of over 60,000 children. Their acts spanned over a period of thirty years, and occurred across five central African countries. The LRA was forced out of Uganda almost ten years ago for their cruel acts against humanity, such as chopping off prisoners’ limbs and abducting young women for sex slavery. Such information suggests that Ongwen’s conduct as an LRA commander was “part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population.”
In order for the ICC to find Ongwen guilty of his alleged crimes, the prosecution will need to provide proof of specific instances where Ongwen murdered and deprived civilians of their liberties. A conviction would be, according to a Human Rights Watch director, an opportunity for victims of the LRA to receive long-awaited justice for the grievances they have suffered.