Meaningful victim participation – but only if you can pay for it?

 

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Near Gulu, Uganda

 

On May 26th, the Single Judge of the Trial Chamber IX denied legal aid to 2/3 of victims participating in the Ongwen case – the ICC’s only case so far in relation to the Lord’s Resistance Army rebellion that for years terrorized communities in northern Uganda. The Single Judge’s decision does not come as a complete surprise: it affirms the interpretation of rules on financial  assistance for victims proposed by the Pre-Trial Chamber in November 2015, which I wrote about previously. In a broader perspective, it is not only a decision on legal aid, it is a step towards focusing victims’ representation with the ICC’s Office of Public Counsel for Victims (OPCV) and limiting victims’ procedural rights, specifically victims’ right to choose their legal representative.

Currently, a total of 2064 victims are admitted to participate in the trial, scheduled to begin in December. Why were 1434 of these victims denied legal aid? Have they failed to prove their indigence? Have their lawyers failed to meet the standards of quality and cost efficient representation?  No. The reasons underlying the Single Judge’s decision have nothing to do with the victims’ indigence or performance of their counsel. The 1434 victims were denied legal aid because they agreed to choose the same representative without engaging the Court’s assistance. Unlike the remaining 592 victims, who made no decision on their legal representation and for whom the Chamber appointed the ICC’s OPCV to act as a Common Legal Representative (CLR), these 1434 victims have fully exercised their freedom to choose a legal representative in accordance with the rules. Importantly, their choice has been approved by the Court as being without prejudice to the effectiveness of proceedings. This decision strikes a blow to meaningful victim participation, it is based on a mid-reading of the rules and is inconsistent with previous practice of the Court. Continue reading

Representation of victims in the Ongwen case

From Gulu to ICC_google maps

The Hague to Gulu, Uganda (photo: Google maps)

The confirmation of charges hearing in the case of Dominic Ongwen has begun. Many victims of the conflict in northern Uganda have been waiting for this moment for the past ten years. More than 2000 victims had been admitted to voice their views and concerns in the case brought by the Prosecutor against one of the top LRA commanders. How will they do that? Through their legal representatives standing in a court room in The Hague, 10,000 km north of where most of the participating victims reside.

Inclusion of victims in the ICC proceedings has been and continues to be one of the most hailed features of the Rome Statute system. There are many doubts, however, as to how it is being implemented. In light of the ongoing (never ending?) debate on “meaningful participation” of victims in ICC proceedings, it is worth looking at the recent developments in the Ongwen case regarding victims’ representation. The effectiveness of victims’ participation in the ICC proceedings depends largely on the performance of their counsel.

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Kwoyelo denied amnesty

Yesterday, the Ugandan Supreme Court ruled that Thomas Kowyelo’s trial should continue in the International Crimes Division (ICD) of the High Court. There is, at present, no full judgement available, so the court’s reasoning cannot be thoroughly digested at this stage. However, by allowing his trial to continue, the Supreme Court has effectively denied amnesty to Thomas Kwoyelo.

Photo: New Vision

Thomas Kwoyelo awaits judgement in the Ugandan Supreme Court on 8 April 2015. (Photo: New Vision)

As noted previously on this blog, a ruling to this effect could have the potential to undermine or even invalidate thousands of amnesty certificates that have been issued by the Amnesty Commission since its creation under the Amnesty Act in the year 2000. Until the Supreme Court’s reasoning on the amnesty issue can be fully assessed, it is unclear how the court came to its decision. But, having been eligible for amnesty under the letter of the 2000 law, if Kwoyelo can now be prosecuted, what does that mean for every holder of an amnesty certificate in Uganda?

The latest twist in the case of Thomas Kwoyelo

by Paul Bradfield

Kwoyelo

Thomas Kwoyelo awaits the start of his trial in Gulu, July 2011. Photo: Justice and Reconciliation Project

A few days ago, former Lord’s Resistance Army (‘LRA’) rebel commander, Thomas Kwoyelo, seemingly made a direct appeal to President Yoweri Museveni to be pardoned for crimes he is alleged to have committed in northern Uganda during the civil war. In an interview with the government-sponsored newspaper, the New Vision, Kwoyelo is quoted as saying:

“Having undergone various rehabilitation programmes, I have realised my past mistakes like any other Ugandan who erred.

I pray that the President gives me a second chance in life.” Kwoyelo, who is currently on a peacemaking and reconciliation programme, said he has benefited from the course and pledged to practice what he has learnt because it calls for reconciliation with God and the society he wronged.

“I am willing to work with the Government at all cost. Once considered for clemency, I swear never to go back to rebel activities,” he said.

This plea for clemency, and the timing of it, is intriguing for a number of reasons. But first, some background and context for those not familiar with the case of Thomas Kwoyelo.

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Uganda Announces Transitional Justice Policy

On 21 May 2013, the Republic of Uganda became the first state in Africa to publish a comprehensive Draft Transitional Justice Policy. Six years after the Juba Peace negotiations between the Lord’s Resistance Army (‘LRA’) and the Government of Uganda (‘GoU’) ended without being formally signed by both parties, the GoU has committed itself to implementing an holistic Transitional Justice policy, designed to address issues of accountability, reparation and reconciliation in post-conflict Uganda. While still a ‘draft’ policy, it marks an historic step by the GoU in creating a framework designed to implement the provisions of the ‘Agreement on Accountability and Reconciliation’, Item no. 3 of the Juba Peace Agreement.

At the beginning of the Juba negotiations, Joseph Kony and his deputy Vincent Otti sit inside a tent at Ri-Kwamba in Southern Sudan. Photo credit: CSMonitor.

At the beginning of the Juba negotiations, Joseph Kony and his deputy Vincent Otti sit inside a tent at Ri-Kwamba in Southern Sudan. (Photo credit: CSMonitor)

In summary, the draft Ugandan policy provides for the following central interventions:

  1. Regarding formal justice processes, the GoU shall ensure witnesses are protected and victims can participate in proceedings;
  2. The GoU commits to recognizing traditional justice mechanisms as a tool for conflict resolution;
  3. The GoU shall establish and resource a national truth-telling process;
  4. The GoU shall establish and implement a reparations programme for victims affected by conflict; and
  5. There shall be no blanket amnesty, with those who have already received amnesty encouraged to participate in truth-telling and traditional justice processes.

On the five commitments listed above, some brief reflections:

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