Trailblazing ICC Judgment on SGBC – Ongwen verdict advances international accountability for forced marriage and forced pregnancy

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On Thursday 4 February 2021, Dominic Ongwen was convicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on 61 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Prosecution had placed sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) at the heart of the case, and Ongwen was found guilty among others on the charges of rape as crime against humanity and war crime, sexual slavery as crime against humanity and war crime, forced pregnancy as crime against humanity and war crime, forced marriage as crime against humanity, enslavement as crime against humanity, torture as crime against humanity and war crime, and outrages upon personal dignity as war crime. Civil society has been fighting for sexual and gender-based crimes (SGBC) to receive the attention they need under international justice and in the ICC courtroom, and today’s judgement in the Ongwen case is crucial in this regard.

Judge Schmitt, Presiding Judge of ICC Trial Chamber IX, read out a summary of the judgement and took the time to give detailed descriptions of harrowing instances of the horrific crimes committed by the LRA. He noted during the reading of the judgement that “victims have a right not to be forgotten, and to be mentioned” in the ICC courtroom. As such, he read out the names of the victims of the crimes detailed, as far as known to the Court. This served as a powerful acknowledgment of the deep suffering of both the mentioned victims and the thousand others at the hand of the LRA.

Judge Schmitt: as a result of these crimes, women and girls experienced “barely imaginable insufferable pain.”

With 19 counts underlining 11 SGBC charges, the Ongwen trial was the first at the ICC with such a broad spectrum addressing SGBV. It was the first time that the crime against humanity of forced marriage was charged as an other inhumane act was being prosecuted before the ICC, as well as the first time that the crime of forced pregnancy was prosecuted before an international court. This reflected outgoing Prosecutor Bensouda’s commitment to address these overlooked crimes and to advance international jurisprudence on the matter. The Prosecutor went to the heart of the gendered dimension of the crimes in her pre-trial brief: “Women were treated as spoils of war, awarded as prizes without any more say in the matter than if they had been animals or inanimate objects.” The objectification of women was mentioned on numerous occasions in the summary of the verdict.

The trial also highlighted sexual violence against men and boys, a topic that is only recently starting to gain traction in the International Criminal Law field. While the Legal Representatives of Victims’ request to call witnesses to testify on this form of violence was rejected, the request did aid to draw attention to the prevalence of these crimes against men and boys in the LRA ranks.

“Today’s decision to hold Dominic Ongwen responsible for SGBC is part of a positive progression in the creation of a strong body of law and jurisprudence on sexual violence at the international level,” said Melinda Reed, Executive Director of Women’s Initiatives for Gender Justice. “Holding a key LRA figurehead accountable for the despicable atrocities perpetrated against countless victims in and around Uganda, it is our hope that accountability and justice will continue to be served for those who have suffered at the hands of the LRA.“

Today’s conviction is only the second ICC conviction for SGBC, after Bosco Ntaganda’s 2019 conviction. Jean-Pierre Bemba’s earlier conviction for the crimes against humanity of rape and murder and the war crimes of rape, murder, and pillaging was later overturned in appeals.

Photo caption: Gulu residents gather to watch the delivery of the verdict in the case of Dominic Ongwen. Picture retrieved from Maria Mabinty Kamara, Twitter, 4 February 2021.
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