Reports surfaced on Tuesday that senior LRA commander and International Criminal Court (ICC) indictee Dominic Ongwen is in the custody of U.S. military forces in the Central African Republic (CAR), and that he may have surrendered voluntarily. If officially confirmed, this will be a defining moment in the mission to stop the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). This victory will represent many things, but I want to highlight three.
1) Getting armed, violent senior commanders off the battlefield alive is possible and should be our expectation. The pursuit of internationally indicted war criminals, can and should be treated as an international law enforcement pursuit, not an “act of war”. While the belief that top LRA commanders could be removed from the battlefield alive, through capture or through surrender rather than by the barrel of a gun, might have seemed unrealistic to some, we are seeing proof that it is possible — from Caesar Achellam’s capture in 2012 to Opio Sam’s capture in 2014, and now, hopefully, with Ongwen’s potential surrender. Ensuring the apprehension of those most responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and having them face a comprehensive review — whether it by national, regional, or international actors — to determine what justice looks like in this case, is essential in building an effective system of international justice. It should not be unusual. It should be what we expect and demand. Of course, identifying and pursuing “true justice” is anything but easy, especially in a very complex case like Ongwen’s. Which leads me to my next point.
2) Justice is not simple. Ongwen was 10 years old in 1990 when he was abducted by the LRA. On his way home from school, he was forcefully taken and trained (against his will) to be a lethal child soldier. He then rose in the ranks and was reported to have led some of the LRA’s most horrific attacks, including the 2009 Makombo Massacre where over 300 people were killed. So is Ongwen a victim or a killer? I think he is both. Ongwen did not choose this lifestyle. It was forced upon him. But now, as an adult, I personally believe he is responsible for his actions and the violent crimes he committed up until this day. And I also believe that we are responsible – the collective we. The we that did not protect communities in northern Uganda from LRA violence and abduction. The we that failed to rescue him after he was taken. The we that did nothing when the LRA was training him. The we that are now supporting his removal from the battlefield. I believe that we are responsible too. Therefore, the fact that his story is this complex is yet another reason that his case should undergo a comprehensive review, and have his full, complete, messy story examined thoughtfully. Justice in his case is not simple. I do not believe that justice would have been served had Ongwen been killed in action. But I do believe that justice starts with removing him from the battlefield alive, and eliminating his ability to inflict more violence. And for that reason, I celebrate.
3) Perseverance wins the day. There have been many moments when we have been utterly frustrated with how slowly progress has been made in stopping the horrific violence of the LRA. Many times we have believed that we were just inches away from a full dismantling of LRA leadership through either peace talks or a targeted pursuit. In light of all of the suffering that the LRA has caused and continues to cause, we have all wished for a silver bullet, but knew that one didn’t exist. Our experience over the last ten years has shown that potentially the most powerful and lasting campaign against a violent group like the LRA is a long, sustained, collaborative, and comprehensive approach that wins over time. Through huge investments in early warning systems, community-based defection efforts, local, regional and international advocacy, region-wide community sensitization of the LRA’s origins and tactics, and collaboration between civil society, policymakers, security forces, and many others , we (again, the collective we) have been able to drastically reduce the LRA’s violence against civilians (92% reduction in killings since 2011), drastically reduce their fighting force (75% reduction in fighting force since 2008), drastically increase the amount of peaceful defection (2,624 LRA captives returned home since 2010) and severely weaken their top leadership (4 out of the top LRA 5 commanders removed from the battlefield in the last 3 years). These are incredible results, and they were not achieved overnight. They were only made possible because of the long-suffering commitment of the local communities and civil society, regional and international governments and institutions, and dedicated activists around the world.
But more than anything, this victory represents the coming of peace – a promise that we continue to work for every day.
Two weeks ago, Invisible Children announced the dramatic downsizing of our U.S mass mobilization programs and operations so that we could prioritize our work in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Central African Republic (CAR) that is on the frontlines of the LRA conflict. And because of your financial support over the holiday season, I am so proud that Invisible Children will remain one of the partners in Africa that is committed to permanently stopping the LRA and supporting affected communities in their recovery. And right now, as part of that commitment, we are preparing brand new “Come Home’ defection messaging to help capitalize on of this important moment, and encourage many more LRA fighters and captives to peacefully leave the battlefield.
Thank you to everyone who continues to support this work. It is rare in human history that you get the chance to completely remove one problem from the problem set of the world. If we all stay the course, we can have that chance.
Joseph Kony, you are up next.