Does the International Criminal Court's verdict offer psychological relief for Dominic Ongwen's victims in northern uganda

On 6 December 2016, Dominic Ongwen’s trial before the ICC in The Hague began. He was charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, allegedly committed during LRA attacks on Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps Lukodi, Odek, Pajule and Abok in Northern Uganda. He denied all charges. More than four years later, the Court reached its verdict: Guilty on 61 of the 70 charges.

When a victim of gross human injustice reacted to the ICC’s verdict in the Dominic Ongwen case by saying that “Today, the Justice manna has fallen from The Hague to the people of Lukodi”, the statement raised intriguing questions about the possible therapeutic gains for victims the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) terror in Northern Uganda. Will 4th February 2021, the day the ICC verdict criminalized Dominic Ongwen for 61 of the 70 counts against him, come to be seen as marking a turning point in the lives of victims and survivors? One survivor certainly believed so:

“Even though I cried too much today while listening to the ruling on radio, today is my healing day and I feel psychologically relieved because the court has wiped away my tears by confirming that someone by the name Ongwen is responsible for the killing of my 6 family members and ugly deeds that people cannot forget in Lukodi here”

Such feedback from affected victims speaks volumes about their pursuit of justice and psychological recovery, and powerfully elucidates the depth of their feelings and perspectives on criminality, justice and mental health recovery. Previously unasked questions about the role of ICC trial and its possible implications for a paradigm shift in victims’ mental health in post-conflict can now, following the verdict, be examined and showcased.

Wounding the wounded

Like other war victims in Northern Uganda who have long been waiting for the fulfilment of promises and pledges of compensation and reparation made by top leaders in Uganda, victims in Ongwen’s case have also had their own share of frustration with the ICC and have been demanding a speedy court process. Indeed, bearing and nursing the pain and the wound of waiting for the verdict and conclusion of the case was a nightmare for many victims. The delays were psychologically aggravating as they also saw some of their distressed colleagues pass away before receiving redress. During Refugee Law Project outreach and counseling sessions, some clients have reported developing hypertension, heart attack and symptoms of psychopathology such as; post-traumatic stress disorders, psycho-somatization, anxiety disorders, depression and unending harmful imagination and other psychiatric manifestations during the “wait for ICC ruling”. One can only imagine what that means for victims involved in the even longer-running trial of Thomas Kwoyelo at the International Crimes Division (ICD) of Uganda’s High Court. And what of the thousands whose tormentors either have not yet defected the rebellion or - the victims claim – have come out of the bush and been gainfully compensated with “bread and butter” by the Government through integration into para-military/military, as well as given Amnesty for their perpetration of crimes against civilian population?

In short, there are thousands for whom still unaddressed gross human rights abuses and violations during the protracted armed insurrection between the LRA and the GoU continue to generate daunting individual and collective trauma associated with different kinds and layers of victimization and violations witnessed, experienced or heard about in conflict-affected communities across the region. Moves towards sustainable psychological recovery and trauma healing have largely stagnated, as exhibited by relapses, haunting narratives of traumatic memories, common post-traumatic stress reactions, and unending bitterness associated with traumatic experiences. All of these suggest a lag in recovery and that trauma survivors have not yet psychologically recovered from their hostile and unjust past.

However, when on 12 November 2020 a press release from the ICC stated that the verdict would be read out in public on 4 February 2021, and that this would either acquit or convict the accused, the emotional terrain changed and longstanding public complaints that the court was taking too long or even forever reduced. This time round, optimism was high among conflict-affected people in the region.

The Psychology of a Legal Process

In recent years, the pathology of trauma has gained wider acknowledgement as a major psychosocial, psychological and public health burden in conflict-affected societies across the globe. Trauma healing and mental health recovery for victims of violence have been associated with the application of psychotherapeutic approaches to assess, diagnose, treat and/or manage symptoms.

As a transitional justice researcher and practitioner, the recent ICC verdict is starting to make me think that psychological recovery is not entirely a product of psychological therapy such as counseling: It can also arise from various combinations of psychotherapeutic and non-psychotherapeutic interventions in a manner which is satisfactory and attested to by the persons concerned. Victims from Lukodi, for example, said they were involved in the ICC court processes from pre-trial to conviction, and are now happy with the ruling.

As a trained counselor who has worked with RLP for over 10 years, I can confirm that clients’ presented complaints are sometimes too complex to counsel, especially when client themselves believe that talk therapy cannot aid their psychological recovery. For example, I still remember a genuine challenge from a physically disabled female survivor of massacre, gunshot and sexual violence in 2019. During a victims’ consultation in Lukodi on the ICC proceedings, she broke down in tears and said;

“Benat (instead of Benard), I know that counseling is good but I don’t think this counseling will repair my war wounds, it will not resurrect my boy whose name is on the monument among the people brutally killed in Lukodi in 2004, and neither will it address the pain associated with guilt and humiliation brought by the rebels who slept with me like an animal in the bush. I will be happy when God answers my prayers to see Ongwen serving sentence and if he is not the one responsible, the same God should show us or report the person to ICC Court - but many people say that he is the one”.

Notwithstanding the existence of deeply divergent views among LRA victims and affected communities over forgiveness and prosecution, it is apparent that, for those who support prosecutions, the verdict offers potential psychological gains. For them, given the nature, magnitude and impacts of crimes committed in the region, impunity in this case would be seen as reinforcing the prevailing prevalence and magnitude of wartime trauma in northern Uganda.

“We can now sleep” was a common phrase uttered by victims from Lukodi after the declaration that Ongwen was responsible for 61 counts. To me, it reflected a mental satisfaction that doubled as a sleeping pill delivered as a by-product by the court to victims who had been grappling with sleeping problems and crime-induced nightmares. For them, sleeping peacefully when their justice dilemma remained unresolved was unimaginable. Equally, once the verdict was delivered, they could not miss the opportunity to share their happiness and thoughts about it.

Similarly, the reaction of people of Lukodi, many of whom are massacre survivors, seemed to reflect the common Christian phrase that “the truth will set you free”. They responded to the verdict by arguing that the ICC’s “fair judgement” will heal them and set them free from the bondage of physical war injuries, prolonged trauma, grief and psychological distress associated with gross human rights violations by the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) under the command of Ongwen. Further, they expressed optimism that they would benefit from the ICC-ordered reparation and rehabilitation benefits for those people whose wellbeing has been constrained by the violations. This, therefore, will potentially promote and consolidate the psychological benefits arising from the ruling.

Is the ICC ruling a substitute or complementary to psychotherapy for victims of trauma in Northern Uganda?

I believe psychological recovery is a work in progress. The potential of courts to manage and even leverage any psychological gains attained from a particular verdict depends upon progressive use of multidimensional and multi-disciplinary approaches that touch the broad spectrum of impacts related to human rights violations, including their psychological/emotional, economic, political, religious and cultural dimensions.

Appropriate post-conflict trauma healing and rehabilitation can be envisioned in pragmatic efforts by different stakeholders to approach healing according to their mandate, expertise and ability as well as appropriate mainstreaming and integration of formal and informal mechanisms. While psychotherapy and psychiatric interventions are indispensable in their pursuit of critical specific healing and recovery-tailored objective(s), the psychological healing that is a by-product of other interventions such as legal remedy and livelihood support should be more proactively appraised. In short, the most effective remedies will require a range of stakeholders to walk with the victims throughout the pre- and post- verdict/punitive periods, and to follow-up on ICC remedy to victims of the crimes through the Trust Funds for Victims (TVC).

Take-home from the process - building for the future!

The ambiguities involved in the prosecution of a former child soldier (abductee) need further analysis and comprehension by the legal regime. This will help ensure that people who are pro-Ongwen and who see forgiveness, Amnesty or a lenient sentence as more appropriate, are also accommodated in the psychological recovery process.

Given that formal courts are structured around a win-lose structure (for criminal cases), it is important to embrace victim protection not from only a legal angle but also from a more psychological point of view. This requires the help of psychosocial and mental health professionals deployed specifically to aid throughout and after the court process to ensure that victims and witnesses are involved all through the process and psychologically prepared to face the reality of the court ruling, whichever way it falls. This will help them learn to control and manage their excitements, expectations and hopes in a manner that will protect them from eventual shocks, re-traumatization, possible self-harm, aggression or over excitement and its possible negative resultant consequences. This is particularly the case if there are appeal applications that could result in court overturning the first verdict, as happened in the case of Jean-Pierre Bemba.

The judgement should set a precedent for combating impunity and promotion of human rights protection as well as respect for the laws of war. Further, the court should clarify and allay fears among formerly abducted people about any future potential collective prosecution. It should encourage proper rehabilitation, reintegration and demilitarization of minds and behaviors for peaceful co-existence, and lasting enjoyment of Amnesty given by the Ugandan Government. I believe that the trial will contribute substantially to promoting trust and hope in the formal justice processes at local and international levels so that people begin to appreciate legal redress for justice concerns beyond wartime injustices.

By Okot Benard Kasozi, Senior Psychosocial Research and Advocacy, under Conflict, Transitional Justice & Governance (CTJG) Programme, Refugee Law Project, Gulu Field Office
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it./okotbkasozi&gmail.com

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