Monday, June 21, 2021

Bringing The Cultural Defences of Dominic Ongwen into Practice at the ICC


Dominic Ongwen at the ICC

In 2015 I dedicated a blog post to the cultural defence where I felt that cultural defences could likely fit into and within the framework of existing defences at the International Criminal Court. (see The Realities of a Cultural Defence at the ICC?) I used the Ongwen case as a point of departure at a time when Ongwen was newly arrested and transferred to the ICC. In the aforementioned blog post which highlighted portions of my newly fledged research and which over time evolved into my existing research, I argued that the defences of mental illness as stipulated under articles 31(a) of the Rome Statute and the defence of duress under article 31(d) of the Rome Statute might be employed to qualify cultural arguments that were lived and relevant realities encapsulating and inherent to the LRA context and that these realities could potentially impact on Ongwen’s criminal responsibility.

Very briefly, to sum up my arguments in that particular blog post, I suggested that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which experts seriously believe, impairs the mental health of child soldiers and young combatants may eventually manifest in chronic mental health issues. This leads to the complete destruction of the defendant’s mental capacity. Based on empirical studies conducted I argued that child soldiers abducted into the LRA experienced such traumatic events and were bound to experience chronic mental issues as a result of their traumatic past. 

Under the defence of duress I also argued that cultural and spiritual influences, which were so deeply embedded in the LRA organizational culture likely, exerted undue influence or duress on LRA combatants to commit crimes not otherwise readily committed. In the post I showed that LRA’s reliance on the use of religion and tradition to instil fear, intimidation and ultimately obedience amongst their followers demonstrated the importance of religion and spirituality in Africa as both a cultural practice and a determinant of social action. My arguments suggested that as part of the motivation for young recruits to join LRA ranks assumed that they would be spiritually protected during battle through the use of immunising rituals and through direct spiritual reinforcement. I went on further to indicate that a spiritual hierarchy existed and that Joseph Kony, as its spiritual head and messenger was central in this hierarchy. According to this existing spiritual hierarchy the final authority was vested in the spirits who laid down various rules. LRA followers of Kony had to closely adhere to these rules to avoid punishment by the spirits or else face death on the battlefield. So in essence these beliefs in this spiritual order, I argued, were so strong that they arguably created control amongst LRA combatants. 

Now fast forward to 2021 where the Ongwen case has since reached a pinnacle at the ICC. The final judgment was rendered at the beginning of February of this year and the Trial Chamber subsequently found Ongwen guilty of 61 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Northern Uganda between July 1, 2002, and 31 December 2005. Ongwen has been convicted of 19 counts of sexual and gender-based crimes including forced marriage, torture, rape, slavery, enslavement, forced pregnancy, and outrages upon personal dignity. 
Most interesting in the Ongwen case has been the Defence’s case, which has utilized the same line of defences, mental illness and duress which I proffered in 2015, long before the case even came to trial. Their use and reliance on expert witness testimony to verify their lines of argumentation has not only highlighted the complexities of this case but has started to revolutionize the way cultural evidence has been presented at the ICC or at any international criminal tribunal or court for that matter. Theirs is a novel approach placing many of my legal reasoning’s on the cultural defence in this particular case into practice and testing these at the ICC.  Summed up the Defence case highlighted four main aspects believed to be crucial for the Judges consideration. These were:

Mr Ongwen is a Child Victim of the LRA

Firstly the Defence held that Ongwen is a victim, not a perpetrator. They argued that he was abducted as a young child by the LRA and brutalized for almost three decades before he was able to voluntarily surrender to the military. As result they argued that Ongwen suffered long-term mental destruction, which essentially meant that there was destruction of his mental abilities and thus his mental capacity. Adjacent to this they added that Ongwen had the mental age of a child and that although he had “chronologically grown into adulthood he had mentally remained a child.”(I also argued this in a recent article as well). Through this line of reasoning the Defence averred that Ongwen’s status as a child/victim should not be overlooked by the Trial Chamber. They reiterated throughout the proceedings that Ongwen must be viewed as a victim over a perpetrator contrary to the Prosecution’s arguments. They also argued that the Prosecution failed to give any empirical evidence on how a child soldier transcended from victimhood into a perpetrator.

The Structure of the LRA and Mr Ongwen’s Status

Another point that they made was that the LRA was not a conventional army. Rather than rely on the hierarchical command structure of the LRA, Kony relied more readily on the command structure of the Council of Spirits, which in their view was departmentalized. They held that the Prosecution did not prove a structure and hierarchy that placed Ongwen in a command position. These arguments are very similar arguments, which I also made previously on the issue of command responsibility in the Bemba case as well some years back. 

The Perversion of Acholi Culture by LRA Spiritualism

Ongwen’s Defence went on to argue that the rules, regulations and orders on policy matters were established and issued by the Spirits through Kony as its medium. According to them Kony viewed himself as an Acholi nationalist, who was sent by God to save the Acholi. There was a widespread and firm belief that the orders of the Spirits that Kony gave were mystical. These rules played a restraining function and gave a sense of protection against harm and thereby tied the individual (Ongwen) further into the movement. The only way to survive in the bush was to follow the edicts of the Spirits. Everybody in the LRA believed Kony’s spiritual attributes as a messenger of the omnipotent and omnipresent God. Every commander – division, brigade, and unit – knew that he or she had no choice but to implement Kony’s orders. The Ten Commandments and spiritualism in the LRA were effectively used as the main tool of control by Kony to exact fear throughout the LRA. In this way the Defence attempted to divert responsibility from Ongwen and append this responsibility onto Kony.

The stand-alone nature of the case

Finally they submitted that what makes this case stand out is its peculiar factual situation, shrouded in spiritualism and the mystical. They held that the role of spiritualism is a novel issue in international courts and tribunals. Its significant impact on the conduct and actions of groups like the LRA has never been litigated before. Spiritualism in the LRA was the main tool used by Kony to remain on top of the LRA. It is in this context that spiritualism and duress as its direct consequence can be assessed and understood as the main drivers of the conduct of the LRA and the victimization of Ongwen. The Defence submitted that the absolutism with which Kony ran the LRA, using spiritualism, is a stand-alone experience in international criminal law, implying that it would necessitate a cautious and balanced response from the Trial Chamber. 


Despite the aforementioned pleas made to the Trial Chamber by Ongwen’s Defence Team, the two affirmative defences that they raised, namely mental disease and duress were out rightly rejected. The defences raised were not necessarily met with the proportionality that could have been applied in this particular case by the Trial Chamber based on Ongwen’s particular and complex background. However, this was still a unique opportunity for the Trial Chamber to engage on these issues nonetheless. It could however have been a perfect opportunity to set a novel and unique precedent on some of the more complex issues that continue to plague the ICL, namely Ongwen’s status as both victim and perpetrator by recognizing and accepting the complexities surrounding child soldiers and their culpability, the significance of raising cultural defences when and if they are applicable and relevant in a particular context, the necessity of engaging more meaningfully and less mechanically on issues where context specificity influence or are at odds with international legal doctrine. The Defence case in Ongwen has however set precedent for the use of a moderate cultural defence at the ICC and that in itself is a significant departure at the ICC and in international criminal law.

Posted by Ingrid Roestenburg Morgan

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