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From jungle to justice: LRA at The Hague

Dominic Ongwen appears at the ICC, January 2015
(ICC Photo)

Almost 10 years after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant against him, a senior member of the Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group appeared before the tribunal’s judges in The Hague today. 

Dominic Ongwen, who surrendered earlier this month in the Central African Republic, faces charges of crimes against humanity, including murder, enslavement and inhumane acts of inflicting serious bodily injury and suffering. He also stands accused of war crimes, namely cruel treatment of civilians and intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population.

He is the first of five indicted LRA members (one of whom has since died) to be brought before the Court.

That Ongwen, like thousands of others, was abducted into the LRA as a child and forced to witness and carry out acts of extreme brutality, is likely to feature prominently in his defence. His recruitment as a child soldier epitomizes the difficulties in distinguishing victims from perpetrators in this conflict.

The LRA came into being in 1987 and over the years IRIN has written hundreds of news, feature and analysis articles and produced several films about the group and the devastating effect prolonged conflict has had on northern Uganda.

Here are some highlights:

This dispatch from 4 December 1996 offers a snapshot of many of the themes that would go on to define the LRA insurgency: human rights abuses, displacement, forced encampment, food security, and humanitarian access. 

In January 1999, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative pushed for negotiations with the LRA rather than prosecutions or military action, a position it continues to hold today. The leaders even travelled to The Hague to press their case against criminal indictments.

It was clear from the start of the war that the LRA was not alone in abusing civilians in the north. The actions of the security forces were frequently slammed by rights activists and years later investigated by the ICC

One particular bone of contention was a government move to force most of the population of the north into “protected villages”, a policy condemned by local politicians. All too often, horrific events made it clear the term was a misnomer. 

Over the years, other key themes of IRIN’s coverage included allegations that the Ugandan army deliberately perpetuated the conflict against the LRA; how the war strained diplomatic relations with Sudan; the phenomenon of “night commuters” – children pouring into the town of Gulu every evening for fear of abduction; life after abduction; and the wider impact of the conflict on education.   

In 2007, this multimedia package examined a comprehensive peace deal between the LRA and the government. Although detailed agreements were drawn up, no final pact has been signed to this day.

In the years that followed, the LRA was driven out of Uganda and went on to commit atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.  

The war in northern Uganda may be over, but its effects linger and continue to cause distress: children wounded in the conflict go untreated; others, orphaned in the war, fend for themselves on city streets; farmers contend with unexploded ordnance, cattle rustlers, lack of basic services, land rows and crop-trampling elephants.  


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