The trial of a former commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague started on 6 December 2016. Dominic Ongwen’s case presents particular challenges owing to his status as a former child soldier, which raises questions as to how he should be treated in judicial proceedings. Watch our Director of Programmes, Isabelle Guitard, discuss this issue on Deutsche Welle and read below for our official position.

Child Soldiers International’s position on the criminal responsibility of former child soldiers

Some commentators are asking whether, as a former child soldier, Mr Ongwen should receive more leniency than other war crimes suspects. Mr Ongwen’s past experience as a child soldier may be relevant for his legal defence. However, without commenting on the facts of this particular ongoing case, that a defendant has been a victim of a similar crime is not a defence in itself. Many perpetrators have been victims at some point in their lives and one cannot simply erase their criminal responsibility on that basis. However, his status as a former child soldier may be relevant at the sentencing stage as a personal mitigating circumstance, should he be found guilty.

It cannot be underestimated how significant these circumstances might be in Mr Ongwen’s case. Having been abducted as a child and experiencing the nomadic and terrifying life of the LRA’s campaigns cannot but have had a lasting effect. Many children associated with armed forces and armed groups will have endured severe beatings and sexual violence, and will have witnessed killings. Some will have victimised others.

Extremely traumatic experiences within these groups are associated with marked emotional distress, behavioural difficulties and traumatic stress symptoms. Children’s way of coping will be affected by whether they were able to demobilise, and by their post-conflict experiences. Those likely to fare better in the longer term are those who on return to their communities can receive family, peer and community understanding, support, acceptance and forgiveness. However, Mr Ongwen never went back: he grew into adulthood without being exposed to non-violent familial and community socialisation and developmental experiences.

We believe that Mr Ongwen should not avoid justice because of his childhood experiences. However, it would be a potential injustice not to take into account his traumatic experiences when determining an appropriate sentence, should he be found guilty.

Child Soldiers International’s application to present an amicus curiae

On 24 November 2016, Child Soldiers International made an application to submit an amicus curiae to offer its expert advice on accountability and mental health issues relating to child soldiers. Our objective was to safeguard the interests of child soldiers as victims, while simultaneously recognising that the consequences of such victimhood continue into adulthood and may be of relevance when considering the actions and behaviour of a former child soldier as an adult. 

Unfortunately, the application was rejected by Trial Chamber IX on 29 November 2016.

Background information

About Dominic Ongwen

Mr Ongwen was abducted as a child in his native Uganda and spent two decades in the LRA before being surrendered to the ICC by the Central African Republic on 16 January 2015. He is therefore a former child soldier, although his precise age at the time of his abduction is unclear. Some reports say that he was abducted while walking to school as a 10-year-old. He himself reported being abducted at 14.

It is alleged that he subsequently rose through the ranks of the LRA and became a senior commander involved in the commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes. In 2005 the ICC had issued an arrest warrant for Vincent Otti, Joseph Kony, Dominic Ongwen and two other senior LRA members. In January 2015, some 10 years later, one of those arrest warrants was realised when Mr Ongwen was transferred to the ICC.

Mr Ongwen is charged with 70 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in northern Uganda between 1 July 2002 and 31 December 2005. The offences Mr Ongwen is charged with were committed during his adulthood and include murder, rape, torture, sexual slavery and enslavement, as well as conscription and use of children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities.[1] 

Further information on The Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen

More detailed information can be obtained from the International Criminal Court: https://www.icc-cpi.int/Pages/item.aspx?name=ma208

Human Rights Watch, Questions and Answers on the LRA Commander Dominic Ongwen and the ICC: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/12/05/questions-and-answers-lra-commander-dominic-ongwen-and-icc

The proceedings will start at 09:30 Central European Time on 6 December and can be watched here: http://player.cdn.tv1.eu/statics/66005/icc.html 

[1] See https://www.icc-cpi.int/uganda/ongwen for the full list of crimes Mr Ongwen is charged with.

Banner image: Dominic Ongwen at his first appearance before the ICC on 26 January 2015, © ICC-CPI.