Dominic Ongwen: Exploited as a child soldier, but not immune from prosecution Defence lawyers for Dominic Ongwen, the first former child soldier to be tried at the International Criminal Court, argue that he is a victim. However, his childhood experiences must not make him immune from accountability for crimes he may have committed as an adult. On 1 October lawyers for Ongwen, who faces 70 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed while a commander in Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army in the early 2000s, will start the presentation of its evidence at The Hague. They argue that charges against Ongwen, including the conscription of child soldiers, rape and sexual slavery, are flawed because he himself was abducted by the armed group as a 10-year-old. He spent 27 years in the LRA. "Dominic Ongwen was a victim rather than a perpetrator. Once a victim, always a victim," his lawyer Krispus Ayena Odongo told the court on 18 September. "The accused did not possess a mind of his own, save for the survival instinct he developed to navigate the harsh conditions of the bush." The first LRA member to go on trial at the ICC, Ongwen’s trial is something of a showpiece event for the court but it would be a potential injustice not to consider his traumatic childhood experiences when determining an appropriate sentence, if found guilty. As a child soldier in the LRA Ongwen is likely to have borne witness to countless atrocities and been exploited and abused by the group which has terrorised communities and recruited thousands of children since it was founded in 1987. The LRA’s reign of terror in Uganda and neighbouring countries has been brutal and many of those recruited by the group and exposed to the conflict have suffered greatly. Dominic Ongwen was wrongly recruited and exploited as a child and his status as a former child soldier may be relevant at the sentencing stage as a personal mitigating circumstance. This does not mean though that the charges brought against him as an adult can be ignored. That a defendant has been a victim of a similar crime is not a defence and many perpetrators have been victims at some point in their lives. Their criminal responsibility cannot simply be erased on that basis. His victims, like any other victims of serious crimes, need and have a right to, justice, reparations and a sense of closure. More widely, the trial once again highlights the pressing need for the international community and governments to come together and halt the continuing cycle of child recruitment which still persists today in at least 18 global conflict situations. In Uganda, great strides forward have been made since Ongwen’s reign in the LRA and the group has lost much of its power in recent years. Since 2000, the UN has helped free more than 115,000 child soldiers globally but tens of thousands continue to be exploited. It is critical that greater resources and funding are provided to facilitate not only the release of children from armed groups but to support their reintegration back into society. Reintegration for former child soldiers is never an off-the-shelf solution nor should it be short-term support, it must be tailored and sustained. Only by listening to children themselves and supporting communities can we prevent future recruitment and re-recruitment and ensure that no child is recruited for war.