Top Ugandan rebel commander in ICC custody: briefing

A Lord's Resistance Army deputy recently surrendered. He has arrived at the International Criminal Court to face crimes against humanity charges.

Mugisha Richard/Uganda People's Defence Force/AP
Ugandan Contingent Commander to the African Union Regional Task Force Col Michael Kabango (l.) talks with a man in UPDF custody said by the UPDF to be the wanted Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) commander Dominic Ongwen (r.) in the Central African Republic, Jan. 14.

A Joseph Kony lieutenant and top Ugandan rebel leader arrived in the Hague Tuesday to face war crimes charges at the International Criminal Court (ICC).  

Dominic Ongwen, a deputy of Uganda's Lord Resistance Army (LRA), is one of five commanders of the rebel group, including the ever-elusive Mr. Kony, who have been indicted by the court.

The LRA has pillaged northern Uganda and Central Africa using kidnapped child soldiers for almost three decades. Mr. Ongwen himself, joined the notorious group when he was kidnapped at the age of 10, later rising within the ranks. His start as a child soldier may be a delicate point for a court that fiercely condemns the use of child soldiers

American and Ugandan forces took Ongwen into custody, after his surrender this month. He eluded capture despite a $5 million reward by the US. He will be held in a detention center in the Netherlands until his trial on a yet to be named date, the ICC said in a statement

Q: What is the significance of Dominic Ongwen's capture?

The arrest of Ongwen is a success in the campaign to crush the Lord’s Resistance Army, a group blamed for killing more than 100,000 people and kidnapping some 60,000 children across five central African nations. The ICC has spent a decade seeking Ongwen’s capture so he can face charges including murder and enslavement. Now the court will have a chance to show that justice delayed does not have to mean that justice is denied. 

Q: What is the purpose of the International Criminal Court? 

Founded in 2002 under the Rome Statute, the International Criminal Court was created as an independent court of last resort for the prosecution of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity, such as murder and rape. The establishment of the ICC recognized two things: First, that in the half century after the Nazi war trials at Nuremberg, perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity too often escaped justice; and second, that although many nations have governments with capable legal systems, they are sometimes are ill-equipped to deal with mass atrocities, especially by those in power. 

Today, the prosecutor may initiate an investigation if a nation is a member of the court, if the United Nations Security Council refers a case to the court, or if the ICC’s prosecutor wants to look into a case. 

Q: What kind of cases has the court prosecuted?

Twenty-one cases in nine situations have been brought before the court. It issued its first verdict in 2012, finding Thomas Lubanga Dyilo guilty of using child soldiers during armed conflict in Congo. The same year it also convicted Charles Taylor, Liberia’s former president, for aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone. But the ICC has few prosecutorial wins, and the court’s critics accuse it of focusing solely on Africa, where all eight countries under full investigations are located and where the court issued indictments. Yet in five of these cases the country itself asked the ICC to open an investigation, and in two others (Libya and Sudan) the Security Council referred the situation to the ICC. Still, the court is dogged by allegations of bias. For example, Afghanistan and Colombia are members, yet the ICC’s involvement in these troubled countries has been limited to preliminary examinations.

Q: Which countries belong to the court? 

Currently there are 123 member countries. Most, 34, are in Africa, 18 are in Asia, 18 are in Eastern Europe, and 27 are in Latin America and the Caribbean; the rest are in Western Europe or other locations. China, Israel, Russia, and the United States are among the nations that aren’t members for a variety of reasons. 

Q: How effective is the court?

The court’s major successes have been mostly on paper, not in the prosecution or sentencing of criminals. Still, its case selection has triggered global awareness and discussion about important topics such as sexual violence and the use of child soldiers. And while the court faces allegations of inefficacy, politicization, and governance problems, it should be noted that the ICC is still a young organization. Internally it’s making changes, such as improving judging guidelines, and there’s evidence of growing international support, especially from smaller nations that view the ICC as a backup system to their own judicial infrastructure. In its short tenure, the ICC has become part of the institutional landscape. 

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