ICC trial against Dominic Ongwen commences – some thoughts on narratives

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

A day to remember: Ongwen’s trial starts on 6 December

Tomorrow, 6 December, the trial against Dominic Ongwen will start before Trial Chamber IX of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Ongwen’s trial follows the ICC’s first conviction for rape this year, and presents a firm break with past setbacks in terms of accountability for sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) at the Court. It will be an important and interesting trial for many reasons, too numerous to address all of them here. Let me focus on a couple relating to the SGBV charges. They are addressed in detail in the Prosecution’s pre-trial brief (I highly recommend reading it in full!) and will no doubt feature prominently during the trial. References below are to paragraphs in the pre-trial brief.

Broadest range of SGBV charges

Dominic Ongwen is an alleged senior commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who is charged with responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the LRA in various locations in Northern Uganda from at least 1 July 2002 to 31 December 2005. As I wrote earlier, he saw 70 charges confirmed against him, including for various modes of liability. It is the first time an accused faces such a high number of charges at the ICC. Many of these charges were added after the Office of the Prosecutor conducted additional investigations following Ongwen’s surrender to the ICC in January 2015. His 2005 arrest warrant contained only seven charges, none of which were for SGBV.

With now 19 of the 70 charges against him relating to SGBV, it is also the first time an accused faces such a broad range of SGBV charges at the ICC: they include several counts of rape, sexual slavery, enslavement, forced marriage, torture, outrages upon personal dignity, and forced pregnancy. Eleven of these 19 SGBV charges relate to crimes Ongwen personally committed as a direct perpetrator (again, a first at the ICC – all other individuals charged with SGBV were/are either charged as indirect (co)perpetrators or under the theory of command responsibility). The other SGBV charges relate to the LRA’s conduct more generally for which Ongwen is held responsible (in the alternative) as indirect co-perpetrator, for ordering, or under the theory of command responsibility.

Forced marriage

Ongwen is the first person at the ICC to face charges of forced marriage. While not a specific crime under the Rome Statute, forced marriage is charged as the crime against humanity of ‘other inhumane acts’. The Prosecution’s pre-trial brief describes an elaborate structure through which young girls abducted by the LRA were distributed among commanders to serve as ting-tings (if they were very young) and subsequently as forced wives (although many witnesses also described that girls could become wives at any age). Soldiers were given ‘wives’ by Ongwen as rewards for ‘work[ing] well in attacks and battle’ (131). Continue reading

Confirmation of charges hearing in Dominic Ongwen case: hopeful signs for gender justice?

From 21 to 27 January 2016, the confirmation of charges hearing in the Dominic Ongwen case was held at the International Criminal Court (ICC). It is an important case for many reasons, one of which is this post’s subject: the case includes a high number of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) charges, which, if confirmed, would be the broadest range of such crimes ever to come to trial at the ICC. It would certainly illustrate that the positive trend in this respect that started with the Ntaganda case continues, and would consolidate important case law on these crimes.

Dominic Ongwen, an alleged senior commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), is charged with responsibility for 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by the LRA in various locations in Northern Uganda from at least 1 July 2002 to 31 December 2005. Importantly, the charges include eight counts of SGBV: rape, torture, and sexual slavery as both war crimes and crimes against humanity, and forced marriage and enslavement as crimes against humanity. This makes it an important case for gender justice at the ICC. The case has the highest number of SGBV charges to date.

However, if the Court’s track-record for sexual violence charges is something to go by, we are in for a rainy day. With Ngudjolo’s acquittal in 2012, and Katanga’s partial conviction in 2014 excluding sexual violence crimes, there have thus far been no successful convictions for SGBV crimes at the ICC. This is a disappointing record for a Court that was heralded as a “model for gender justice” when its Statute entered into force.

With the Office of the Prosecutor’s (OTP) stated commitment to strengthen its investigation and prosecution of SGBV, however, there is hope that this case will be different. It follows in the footsteps of the Ntaganda case – the first case to reach the confirmation stage since Fatou Bensouda took office as Prosecutor; this was the first case in which all SGBV charges sought by the Prosecution at confirmation were confirmed. Further, in the Ntaganda case, the OTP is pushing the understandings of IHL protections around (sexual violence) crimes committed against one’s own troops. If successful, this would develop international law’s gendered understandings of child recruitment.

The Ongwen case may shed light on yet another relatively under-developed area of gender justice in international criminal law jurisprudence. It would be one of the few cases in international criminal justice to address the crime of forced marriage. While not included in the Rome Statute as a separate offence, the Prosecution has charged forced marriage as an inhumane act of similar character under Article 7(1)(k). The Prosecution alleges that the LRA pursued a policy of abducting women and young girls with the express aim of forcing them to act as wives of LRA commanders and fighters. While the OTP alleges that exclusive sexual services were an inherent part of being a forced wife, importantly, they argued that it also encompasses other, non-sexual, tasks such as household chores, cooking, and child rearing, i.e. raising new LRA fighters.  Continue reading

SRSG Bangura “Sexual Violence: A Crime of War”

Below is the full text of the lecture delivered by the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ms. Zainab Bangura, in honor of Katherine B. Fite delivered at the 2014 IHL Dialogs at the Chautauqua Institution (25 August 2014):

Distinguished guests, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

Good evening and thank you very much for welcoming me here tonight. I am deeply gratified to be here with so many professionals who have dedicated their careers to helping survivors of atrocities, such as sexual violence, on their long road toward justice.

I am proud to address you this evening in the name of Katherine Fite. I am inspired by the depth of her courage and commitment to justice at the Nuremberg Tribunal. At a time when the world was reeling from the horrors of the Second World War, Fite gathered evidence and prepared arguments to help bring Nazi leaders to trial. The Nuremberg Trials, while controversial at the time, marked an important step in international law, and it is due in large part to Fite’s contribution – and in furtherance of her vision – that we are gathered here tonight.

The Nuremberg Trials symbolized a paradigm shift in how the world viewed, and punished, war crimes and crimes against humanity. They laid the foundations for a permanent International Criminal Court and set a powerful precedent for dealing with genocide and other crimes that shock the collective conscience.

The Nuremberg Tribunal attempted to address the horrors of the Holocaust, including crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Despite its historic achievements, we must acknowledge that the issue of sexual violence was sidelined. Given what we now know about the scale of rape and sexual slavery during the Second War World, it is a conspicuous and tragic absence.

After the Nuremberg Trials ended, many people wanted to believe that justice had been delivered. They wanted to believe that at last, the victims of the Holocaust were named and counted. They wanted to focus on reconstruction efforts and reestablish a sense of normalcy. In addition, the perception that rape was a “private” matter and a second-class crime committed primarily against second-class citizens, namely women and girls, meant that it was easily overshadowed by other horrors of the war. As a result, survivors of sexual violence who tried to tell their stories were met largely with war weariness and indifference.

Then in 2000, researchers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began documenting all of the ghettos, slave labor camps, concentration camps and killing centers operated by the Nazis. In 2013, they released findings that shocked Holocaust scholars, as well as the global community.

Based on post-war estimates, the researchers expected to find about 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, but the numbers kept climbing until the researchers identified some 42,500 sites, including at least 500 brothels where women were held as sex slaves. They also uncovered thousands of sites where pregnant women were routinely forced to undergo abortions, or their children were killed after birth.

What obscured these shocking crimes? Continue reading

The Issue of Consent: Clarifying the Differences between Forced and Arranged Marriage

Due to the frequent overlap with arranged marriage, confusion often arises as to how forced marriage should be classified under international criminal law. This has led scholars, courts, and legal practitioners to either subsume forced marriage under sexual slavery, ignore forced marriage in criminal indictments despite contrary evidence, or label it as an “other inhumane act” under crimes against humanity. To clarify these misconceptions, forced marriage should be removed from the “other inhumane acts” category and should be enumerated as a distinct crime against humanity alongside other sex and gender-based crimes under the International Criminal Court (ICC)’s Rome Statute. However to understand forced marriage, it is important to distinguish forced marriage from arranged marriage.

Forced marriage occurs when a perpetrator compels a person through threats or force into a conjugal association, resulting in great suffering, or serious mental or physical injury on the victim. An arranged marriage is a marital union based on the spouses coming together through an arrangement, often through family members acting as fiduciaries to the parties entering the marriage. The one issue tying these marriages is the degree or lack of consent between the parties.

First, consent is an absolute and essential right within the context of any marriage. Article 16(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads, “Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.” Consent is also an essential element in establishing a valid marriage under Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and Article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Furthermore, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, in his 2006 study on violence against women, defined forced marriage as one that “lacks the free and valid consent of at least one of the parties.” Since the lack of consent is an important element in defining forced marriage, it is important to demonstrate that the lack of consent in an arranged marriage does not meet the threshold necessary to elevate arranged marriage to a crime against humanity.

Continue reading