The Trial of Dominic Ongwen: Has the Time for Accountability for Sexual Crimes in Contexts of War Finally Come?


This week, the Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) heard closing arguments from the prosecution, defense, and the legal representatives of the victims in the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former senior leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The three year-long trial commenced on December 6, 2016, 11 years after the Pre-Trial Chamber had unsealed arrest warrants against Ongwen and four other top commanders of the LRA. Among the 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity that Ongwen allegedly committed against civilian populations in Northern Uganda between July 2002 and December 2005, are 19 counts of sexual and gender-based crimes, including rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage, and enslavement. This is the widest range of sexual crimes that have ever been brought to trial before the ICC. Ongwen’s case thus marks a key milestone in developing a progressive jurisprudence on gender justice and accountability for sexual crimes in contexts of armed conflict.

Sexual and gender-based crimes were a key defining feature of the two-decade armed conflict between the LRA and the Government of Uganda. The LRA systematically abducted young women and girls between the ages of 10 and 18 years and awarded them to LRA fighters as “bush wives” and domestic servants, known as “ting ting.” The abducted women and girls were forced into exclusive conjugal relationships with the combatants and compelled to provide all services that might be expected of a wife, including sexual relations, domestic chores, and child care. The soldiers often severely tortured and physically abused their captive wives. In her closing written brief, the prosecutor argues that, as the commander of the Siniya Brigade, “Mr. Ongwen personally participated in and eventually supervised the implementation of an ongoing system of sexual and gender-based crimes.” Seven witnesses testified that Ongwen subjected them to various forms of sexual violence.

Ongwen is the first person to be charged with the crime of forced marriage as a crime against humanity under Article 7(1)(k) of the Rome Statute. The prosecutor’s decision to bring the charge is significant, not only because the Rome Statute does not specifically stipulate the crime of forced marriage, but because it signifies an attempt to capture the full extent of the abuse suffered by victims of the LRA, which charges of sexual slavery and rape alone cannot do. The crime of forced marriage provides a wider lens through which to examine the socioeconomic impact of violations against women, beyond the often narrow focus on the physical harms associated with rape and sexual slavery.

As noted in the ICTJ study, “From Rejection to Redress: Overcoming Legacies of Conflict Related Sexual Violence in Northern Uganda,” sexual and gender-based crimes have life-long effects on victims. Women and girls that were abducted and forced into marriage by the LRA face innumerable challenges in Uganda’s patriarchal culture, in part because such “marriages” do not conform to certain cultural standards. Most of the formerly abducted women and girls who returned to their communities with children born out of forced marriages have experienced pervasive discrimination, stigma, and rejection by their families.

The Ongwen trial follows the trial and conviction in July 2019 of Bosco Ntaganda for the crime of sexual slavery, as well as crimes of sexual violence committed against his own troops. It is hoped that Ntaganda’s conviction will be upheld on appeal. Until the Ntaganda case, ICC prosecutor’s office had been unsuccessful in securing convictions for sexual and gender-based crimes. As a result, these crimes, the forms of victimization they produced and their impact have gone unrecognized by the court and unpunished. For instance, Germain Katanga, the former commander of the armed group Front for Patriotic Resistance of Ituri in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), was acquitted of all charges relating to rape and sexual slavery, though he was convicted for other crimes. And the Appeals Chamber overturned the celebrated conviction of Jean-Pierre Bemba, the former leader of the DRC rebel group Movement for the Liberation of the Congo, for sexual crimes. 

Against this backdrop, the Ongwen verdict has the potential to help solidify the gains made in recent years to advance accountability for sexual and gender-based crimes. It could signify a major evolution in the jurisprudence of international crimes whereby the law not only recognizes the specific and intentional brutality of sexual and gender-based violence in times of war and the far-reaching harm it has on the individual victim, family, and community but proscribes it as a punishable crime. A conviction would also send a strong message to would-be perpetrators that the time of impunity for sexual violence as a means of warfare has ended: They will be held accountable for these atrocities. 

In addition to revealing the vast scale of sexual violence that occurred during the conflict in Northern Uganda, Ongwen’s trial has shed light on unimaginable acts of violence and the suffering inflicted by the LRA on millions of civilians living in the region. Many victims were left with significant psychological trauma, long-term physical injuries, and lasting social challenges.

Members of affected communities with whom ICTJ has engaged are under no illusions that the criminal proceedings at the ICC will address all their justice needs. At a community dialogue organized by ICTJ in Abok, an area covered in the case, a community member noted, “I don’t think Ongwen’s conviction alone can solve all our problems; the government should find other ways as well to assist victims.” The immediate and long-term needs  of  victims and war-affected populations include specialized medical care, physical rehabilitation, psychosocial support,  education scholarships for children born of war, and exhumations and reburials, in accordance with local customs, for those that were killed during attacks by the LRA and hastily buried in shallow mass graves.

As the judges of the ICC’s Trial Chamber adjourn to write their judgment, victims will be waiting for a verdict, which they hope will vindicate their long quest for truth and justice. But regardless of the trial’s outcome, the Government of Uganda in fact bears the primary responsibility to close the justice gap for the victims of heinous crimes in Northern Uganda. It must do more to deliver truth, justice, and acknowledgment to victims.  It should not wait for the outcome of the trial; rather, it must take immediate steps to provide interim assistance and put in place a comprehensive reparation program to address the long-term physical and psychological effects and lasting social consequences of the harms suffered by victims. It must also intensify its efforts to investigate and prosecute those responsible for committing serious crimes during the conflict in Northern Uganda who remain at large. The prosecution of Ongwen is an important first step toward justice, but it is not enough.

PHOTO: Former LRA commander Dominic Ongwen appears in an ICC courtroom for his confirmation of charges hearing on January 21, 2016. (ICC-CPI/Flickr)