The trial against Dominic Ongwen, a former commander of the Sinia brigade in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), started at the International Criminal Court (ICC) this week. On 6 and 7 December, Trial Chamber IX heard opening statements from the Prosecution and two teams of Legal Representatives of Victims. The Defence had requested to defer its opening statements to the beginning of the presentation of its evidence. The trial is an important one for many reasons, not least because of the difficult issue of Ongwen being a ‘victim-turned-perpetrator’ (see this post by IntLawGrrl Diane Amann). Rather than providing a detailed overview of the submissions, I want to focus on a specific issue that struck me listening to the Prosecution’s opening statements: (gendered) narratives and discourse.
As Michelle Jarvis writes in the introduction to the book Prosecuting Conflict-Related Sexual Violence at the ICTY, and as IntLawGrrl Daniela Kravetz wrote, there has been a tendency in international criminal law to focus -almost exclusively- on the sexual component of SGBV crimes when committed against female victims. This renders the violence aspect of such crimes almost invisible. On the contrary, where it concerns sexual violence against male victims, the focus has predominantly been on the violence component, as opposed to the sexual component, with such harm often characterised only as torture, or cruel treatment. These gendered dynamics have been pervasive; hence the significance of the ICC’s conviction in the Bemba case classifying rape of male victims as rape.
The Ongwen case marks another breaking point – the Prosecution has classified acts of sexual violence against women and girls not just as sexual violence (rape and sexual slavery), but as torture and outrages upon personal dignity. It has also included charges of forced pregnancy and forced marriage, two predominantly gendered (rather than sexual) crimes (see the Prosecution’s pre-trial brief for its pleadings in this respect). The Prosecution described the LRA’s systematic, institutionalised practice to abduct young women with the express aim of forcing them into an exclusive forced conjugal relationship (“forced marriage”) with LRA commanders. They were raped, forced to carry out domestic duties such as cooking or cleaning, were beaten for refusing to do so, and some bore children as a result of their repeated rapes. This policy was “vigorously enforced” within the LRA and constituted one of its “defining features”. Ongwen himself had many forced wives, some of whom were as young as 10 years old.
The Prosecution summarised in detail the testimony already given by seven of Ongwen’s forced wives to the Pre-Trial Chamber, and referred to broader contextual evidence from other witnesses who have yet to testify. Importantly, the Prosecution underscored that in using the terms (forced) “marriage” and (forced) “wife”, it did not seek to legitimise what occurred. The Prosecution stressed that, while a victim’s lack of consent “may have been obvious at first”, when they were subsequently “bludgeoned into silent submission” this did not mean the acts became consensual.
While it was thus clear the Prosecution was very aware of nuances in language, there was nonetheless a notable change in terminology in its submissions. Continue reading