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Abducted by Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) at the age of ten on his way to school, thereafter proselytised into the army, became a Commander and then, years later, surrendered to the ICC, Dominic Ongwen presents a peculiar case for the International Criminal Court (ICC). Yesterday, the International Criminal Court, at its pre-trial chamber, confirmed that 70 charges have been brought against Dominic Ongwen, meaning the case will move to trial. The charges brought against him include war crimes of murder, rape, sexual slavery, torture, pillaging and the forceful enlistment of children under the age of 15 into the LRA to participate in violence.

The Lord’s Resistance Army/Lord’s Resistance Movement, lead by the infamous Joseph Kony, is a rebel group originally from Uganda but now in parts of other countries in East Africa. The group has been accused of different human rights violations including  abduction, murder, mutilation and child sex slavery, with the International Criminal Court issuing warrants for the arrests of five of its leaders, including David Ongwen in 2005. Of the five leaders, at least two have been confirmed dead while David Ongwen while on his way to surrender in 2015 was captured by Seleka rebels and handed over to the ICC for a ransom. He is the first leader of the LRA to be arraigned by the ICC, with his boss, Joseph Kony, still at large. This trial also provides a major twist to prosecutions of war crimes by the ICC; it’s the first time it would prosecute a suspect who is both a victim of war crimes and a war criminal. The ICC recognises the “conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 and using them to participate actively in hostilities” as a war crime. What is going to happen to a war criminal who was a former victim of war crimes?

LRA soldiers, under Ongwen’s command, reportedly sliced off the lips or ears of their captives and also ordered killings of civilians as well as the abduction of children and their subsequent conscription as child soldiers. Ongwen’s “past experience as a child soldier” will only serve as a mitigating factor, not an exoneration, as human rights groups have pointed out. Or will it?

Perhaps his rise to the post of commander in the LRA suggests that he didn’t survive being a child soldier by sheer luck, but by willful effort. His actions as the commander, perhaps, also suggest that he matured into a sadistic, tyrannical leader and may have not have done anything under duress. However, his experiences as a child soldier are not a “past experience”, it’s his experience. The LRA commander wasn’t abducted by the LRA as a child and then freed, only for him to come back to join Kony. The sum total of his experiences as a soldier in the ranks of the LRA far outweighs that of his experience in normal society. Perhaps, that is the only thing he’s ever known for most of his life. His development under the tutelage of notorious Joseph Kony, who uses his religious rhetorics to draw followers, is all the 40-year old David Ongwen has ever known.

A child soldier or a child associated with an armed force or armed group refers to any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes.”

One rule of the LRA is “any child caught trying to escape would likely be beaten to death by the other children.” Growing up in this kind of environment would absolutely cause you to do anything to survive, perhaps even being one of the child soldiers to beat an escapee to death. “Violence was the currency of survival…Commanders trying to impress Kony came up with increasingly sadistic innovations, such as cutting off the lips, ears and noses of their victims” an independent consultant who has been studying LRA for some years said. Many in Ogwen’s hometown in Uganda have criticized his arrest by the ICC, with some claiming that the ICC was indirectly ‘blaming him for his survival.’

Perhaps that is true, but what is baffling is we seem to think a child soldier is not responsible for his acts until he is 18, and then suddenly he’s liable for every act done afterwards simply because he stayed, even when there was a greater risk for him if he had left. Perhaps the greater question is who still bears responsibility for the killings in the larger picture, David Ongwen or Joseph Kony?


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