Uganda and the ICC: justice at last?

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On 1 December 2023, International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor Karim Khan announced that “the investigation phase in the Situation in Uganda is concluded,” marking the end of an era, almost 20 years after the opening of the investigation in July 2004. While proceedings in two cases are still ongoing, FIDH and FHRI reiterate the need for inclusive reparations and meaningful victim participation in the two ongoing ICC cases, while calling upon Ugandan authorities to effectively address the impunity gap, and provide reparations to affected communities.

In 2004, the ICC opened an investigation into the situation in Northern Uganda, where the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had been active since the 1980s, engaged in a violent decades-long conflict with the Uganda Government. The LRA is responsible for more than 100,000 deaths, the abduction of 60-100,000 children, and the displacement of 2.5 million people, according to the United Nations. Joseph Kony, the LRA’s Commander, has been on the run since. He is also listed in the War Crimes Rewards Programme, where a reward of up to $5 million (USD) is offered by the United States Department of State for information leading to his arrest.

While the investigation into the atrocities committed in Northern Uganda since July 2002 has ended, proceedings in two cases are continuing until their completion which could take several more years: reparations are imminent in the Dominic Ongwen case, and Joseph Kony faces an unprecedented in absentia confirmation of charges hearing, and potentially a trial if a state arrests and surrenders him to the Court. Tragically, justice and accountability remain largely elusive for these heinous crimes.

Highly anticipated reparations order in Dominic Ongwen case

Five arrest warrants have been issued in the Uganda situation, but only Dominic Ongwen, a former Ugandan child soldier turned LRA commander, has been tried at the ICC. While Ongwen’s culpability was complicated by his victim-perpetrator status, the Court ultimately found that he was criminally responsible for 61 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes carried out between July 2002 and December 2005. In 2021, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for crimes including rape, sexual enslavement, child abduction, torture, and murder. A phase dedicated to the reparations to victims is now underway and judges will deliver the order for reparations to victims on 28 February 2024.

More than 4,000 victims participated in the trial, with many more expected to participate in the reparation phase, “making the Ongwen case the largest and potentially most complex case considered by the ICC so far in reparation proceedings.” On 4 February 2022, FIDH submitted an amicus brief with a coalition of 10 Ugandan and international organisations, requesting ICC judges to adopt a methodology for the design, identification, and implementation of reparations “that truly considers the centrality of victims in this phase of the proceedings.” This includes ensuring victims have meaningful legal representation, psychosocial support, information about services, care provisions for children, and transportation allowances to victims. Participation modalities should also “be designed using a localised approach and be open to bottom-up suggestions from survivors.”

The reparations order is eagerly awaited by thousands of victims in the case. Many questions remain, and victims’ groups ask, for instance: will the reparations be individual or collective? which is still unclear to victims; what if these expectations aren’t met? Will it result in further conflict?; what about compensation to the many victims who have already died?; and what about the mass majority of victims and survivors who are not part of this case?

FIDH and its partners will continue to monitor these reparation proceedings and call for inclusive reparations during the implementation phase.

Long awaited proceedings against Joseph Kony set to begin in his absence

On 19 January 2024, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) filed its document containing the charges (DCC) against Joseph Kony. Joseph Kony is suspected of 36 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, allegedly committed between July 2002 and December 2005 in Northern Uganda, including attacking the civilian population, murder, torture, enslaving abducted civilians, pillaging and destroying property, persecution, and child soldier crimes. The Prosecutor notably also focuses on gender-based crimes against hundreds of women and children, which include enslavement, sexual slavery, forced marriage, rape of women and girls, forced pregnancy, and torturing and/or severely abusing and mistreating and cruelly treating women and children.

The next step will be a hearing where ICC judges will decide whether to confirm these charges. For the first time ever, this hearing is set to be held in absentia, without the presence of the suspect - Joseph Kony. In the meantime the judges have ordered the Registry to “take all reasonable steps to inform Mr Kony of the charges” which need to be translated into Acholi and “easily accessible on the Court’s website”. In absentia proceedings are controversial in terms of their potential incompatibility with the purpose of accountability as well as human rights standards including the right to be present in court. Some question, is this “renewed drive in the man-hunt for Kony just more self-gratifying posturing from the West? What does this ICC process actually mean for victims?”

That said, many victims and affected communities in Uganda had lost hope over the case believing that it was already over, and the renewed action on the case “shows that the fire is still burning.” The preliminary hearing provides a significant opportunity for victims in the case to have their voices heard. Legal representatives of victims may present their clients’ views and concerns in the courtroom. The hearing also has the potential to bring these atrocities into the public and policy limelight once again, and galvanise efforts to arrest him. The ICC is now reportedly “seeking partners for logistics, information, personnel and anything else that would eventually lead to the arrest of rebel leaders accused of committing crimes against humanity,” including for Joseph Kony.

FIDH and its partners will closely follow this historic confirmation of charges process against Joseph Kony, and continue to advocate for meaningful victim participation in this important stage of proceedings.

Concerns about prevailing impunity as the ICC Uganda Investigation closes

When the ICC investigation into the situation in Uganda was referred to the ICC by the Government of Uganda in 2003, it marked a pivotal moment and offered some hope for justice for tens of thousands of victims and survivors in Northern Uganda. The OTP focused its investigation on alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in the context of a conflict between the LRA and the national authorities in Uganda, and the OTP issued five arrest warrants for top LRA commanders. Three were however withdrawn after the deaths of the suspects. This leaves serious concerns that more needs to be done, especially since the ICC only had jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute crimes committed since 1 July 2002, leaving a significant impunity gap for the first 15 years of the conflict.

Under the principle of complementarity, states have the primary responsibility to investigate and prosecute international crimes. While adopting the contested 2000 Amnesty Act creating a Commission that granted amnesty to thousands of LRA fighters, Uganda has made strides in its criminal justice system, including the establishment of the International Crimes Division (ICD) within the High Court of Uganda. Peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA in 2006-2008 also led to a formal court to try perpetrators, traditional dispute resolution, and a reconciliation mechanism.

Despite these structural developments, however, FIDH and FHRI express deep concern about the lack of progress in domestic proceedings in Uganda, in terms of both accountability, and the absence of meaningful reparations which are still urgently needed as an integral step towards “healing, reintegration of victims and the restoration of victims’ dignity”. FIDH and FHRI strongly urge the Ugandan authorities to take concrete steps towards ensuring accountability and providing reparations for victims, and the ICC to continue supporting actively the Ugandan authorities in doing so.

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