In early 2015, former LRA commander and International Criminal Court (ICC)-indictee Dominic Ongwen surrendered to security forces in the Central African Republic (CAR) and was later transferred to the custody of the ICC to await trial in The Hague, where he remains now that trial proceedings have begun.
After being abducted by the LRA as a boy (somewhere between the ages of ten and 14), Ongwen was forced to become a soldier and eventually rose within the ranks of the LRA to become a top commander under Joseph Kony’s leadership. In 2005, along with Kony and three other top LRA commanders, Ongwen was indicted by the ICC on seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Since his surrender and subsequent arrest in 2015, the ICC has charged Dominic Ongwen with additional crimes, bringing the total number of charges against him to 70 — the most counts ever presented against someone in the ICC. One of the charges Ongwen faces is for the crime of enslavement, making him the first person to ever be charged by the court for the same crime of which he was also a victim. Given the incredibly complex victim-perpetrator dynamics of Ongwen’s situation, the proceedings and the outcome of his trial have already galvanized very important international conversations about the true nature of justice and the significant legal precedent that this will set.
In a pre-trial brief released earlier this month, the prosecutor in Ongwen’s case focused heavily on the sexual and gender-based crimes with which Ongwen has been charged. The brief states that “the regime of sexual abuse of girls and women in the LRA is one of its defining features…Women were treated as spoils of war, awarded as prizes without any more say in the matter than if they had been animals or inanimate objects.”
Though not frequently discussed, these crimes against women and girls are all too frequently perpetrated by the LRA. Based on scores of testimonials from LRA escapees, LRA commanders systematically abduct, enslave, and commit violence against women and girls. It is common for abducted girls within the LRA to be forced to become the ‘wives’ of LRA leaders. In such circumstances, girls are repeatedly raped and abused, often forced to bear the children of their captors and abusers.
Ongwen is charged not only for his direct role in committing these acts of violence against female captives, but also for the many similar crimes committed by LRA forces under his command. He himself allegedly took several ‘wives’ as an LRA commander, and has been accused of frequently “rewarding” male LRA fighters under his command with women and girls.
The prosecutor’s focus on sexual and gender-based crimes allegedly perpetrated and permitted by Dominic Ongwen increases the significance of this already groundbreaking case. While these crimes often go unreported, and perpetrators untried, sexual and gender-based crimes are often at the center of violent conflicts similar to the LRA crisis. The ICC’s Lead Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, is trying to change that by working to hold perpetrators of these crimes to account. Since becoming the ICC’s Lead Prosecutor, Bensouda has highlighted charges of these types of crimes in more and more cases like Ongwen’s. That being said, Ongwen’s trial will be significant for international justice in many ways, and we’ll be here to help you keep an eye on its progress.
As we wait for the next stages of Ongwen’s trial to begin in December, many boys just like him are still being held captive by the LRA, which actually increased their abduction of young boys in Central African Republic this year. Likewise, hundreds of women and children continue to face violent crimes as captives and targets for their attacks. Our Come Home Radio Broadcasts encourage LRA fighters to lay down their weapons, peacefully surrender, and return home. Peaceful defections encouraged by Come Home messages not only help non-violently dismantle the LRA from within, but can often result in the release of dozens of women and children captives as well. With your support, we can bring more fighters and captives home, help reunite them with their families, and support their journey of healing.