Institute of African Studies - Columbia University

Whose Justice?

Event Details

Whose Justice?
Reframing the International Criminal Court's Trial of Dominic Ongwen [Session I]
February 2, 2017 - 6:00pm to 8:00pm
509 Knox Hall - 606 West 122nd Street

On December 6, 2016, the International Criminal Court (ICC) commenced its trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former top-ranking commander in the infamous Ugandan rebel group known as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). While Ongwen's case is by no means the first trial to come before the ICC, it is certain to carry considerable symbolic weight for the Court.

Dominic Ongwen is facing 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity - more than ten times the average number of charges brought against other defendants at the ICC. Yet Ongwen (now approximately 40 years old) was abducted into the LRA as a minor - making him not only a perpetrator of war crimes, but also a victim. His trial is unprecedented in that it marks the first time the ICC has ever prosecuted a former child soldier. Of the commanders indicted by the ICC, Ongwen is the only one who did not join the LRA of his own volition - yet he is the only one likely to ever see trial. Ongwen's case raises a wide range of questions about culpability in conflicts involving child soldiery, the rights of civilian victims, and the efficacy of international justice mechanisms. As such, it provides fertile ground for discussion and debate.

This semester, the Institute of African Studies, together with the Law in Africa Student Society, RightsLink, and the SIPA Economic and Political Development Concentration, will explore these issues, and more, in a two-part symposium examining the history and complexities of Ongwen's trial.

Session I

The ICC in Northern Uganda: A History

Thursday, February 2nd at 6:00pm
509 Knox Hall - 606 West 122nd Street

This installment will feature Human Rights Watch's Elise Keppler, independent researcher (and author of When the Walking Defeats You: One Man's Journey as Joseph Kony's BodyguardLedio CakajJohn Washburn of the American Non-Governmental Organizations Coalition for the International Criminal Court, the Munk School of Global Affairs' Mark Kersten, and Columbia Law School's Francis Ssekandi.

The discussion will introduce Ongwen's case, covering both the history of the Lord's Resistance Army and the history of the International Criminal Court's involvement in northern Uganda, while also touching on Uganda's Amnesty Act, the Juba Peace Process, and other past attempts to bring stability and justice to areas affected by the LRA. It will lay the groundwork for a more nuanced discussion of the specific complexities of Ongwen’s trial, in the second session.


Session II

Victimhood, Criminality, and Positionality in International Justice

Monday, March 20th at 6:00pm
International Affairs Building 1501

This panel will feature Harvard Law's Alex WhitingMark Drumbl of Washington and Lee Law School, and author Opiyo Oloya. It will also include Stephen Lamony of the Amnesty International, and Ketty Anyeko (currently doing her PhD at the University of British Columbia, but formerly of the northern-Uganda-based Justice and Reconciliation Project, and translator of I Am Evelyn Amony). 

The discussion will grapple with the moral and legal ambiguities of Ongwen's standing as a former child soldier, while also interrogating the merits of international versus local justice mechanisms in a case like Ongwen’s. Questions and topics of discussion for this panel include the following: Do the circumstances under which Ongwen became a war criminal mitigate his crimes? If so, how should they be weighed in his trial, and what implications might this have for the future treatment of child soldiers in the realm of international justice? Does international transitional justice in a case like the one at hand serve the victims, or might it in fact sideline them, while prioritizing optics and Western geopolitics? Many claim that local communities want Ongwen to face “traditional” justice measures, while others point out that by Ugandan law, Ongwen should have even been eligible for amnesty. Would it have been in the interest of LRA-affected communities to consider either of these options over ICC prosecution? In addition, many critics of the ICC point out that the Court erred by indicting only LRA commanders, while neglecting to level any charges against the Uganda People’s Defense Force (UPDF - the national military, which also committed heinous acts of violence against civilians during the LRA conflict). By failing to address UPDF crimes, has the ICC legitimized government violence and allowed itself to be used as a tool of victors' justice in Uganda?


Co-Sponsored By: Law in Africa Student Society, RightsLink, SIPA Economic and Political Development Concentration, SIPA Pan-African Network, Conflict Resolution Working Group, Women in Peace and Security, Women in Leadership, African Development Group, and Human Rights Working Group.