Should We Celebrate ICC’s Award to LRA Victims?

By Nnanda Kizito Sseruwagi

Towards the close of February 2024, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a record reparations order, compensating about 50,000 victims of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) up to $56 million (Shs.222 billion). Most of those compensated were particularly victims of LRA’s former rebel commander Dominic Ongwen who was convicted in 2021 on 60 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Whereas this reparations award is a bold statement especially to the victims of this LRA insurgency in denouncing their plight, it remains problematic in many ways.

Firstly, the Trust Fund for victims where this sum- the largest the ICC has ever awarded in a case- is expected to come from, relies on voluntary contributions and could actually fail to raise enough money to meet the compensation order. This in itself is problematic as I will explain later. But one should wonder how Ongwen, who is the person against whom the compensation order falls, or criminals like him, could be deterred yet they know that the ICC will upon their conviction find them indigent and consequently shoulder their burden of compensation.

Secondly and most importantly, I think that this award is precisely a tool and technique for legitimizing the ICC. By celebrating this award, Uganda would be ordaining the legitimacy of the ICC hence sanctioning it to undertake other decisions which might be ulterior and deleterious to our national interests in the end.

What is wrong with legitimising ICC? Or why should we consciously and proactively discredit the ICC?

This international tribunal was established in 2002 under the Rome Statute. It promised to foster justice and human rights on the international landscape. Uganda was one of the naïve states which ratified the Rome Statute as early as June 2002.

It was naïve because how could we have bought the lie that an international organisation could dispense criminal justice in the absence of a political jurisdiction? The vague description of the magic with which the ICC claims to effectively administer justice on an international scale without the backing of a state establishment only raises suspicion about the invisible state powers to which it provides cover like a magician’s sleight. It is realistically impossible to dispense criminal justice and order without the backing of a political order. In the case of ICC, that order becomes the narrowly interested cartel of great powers at the Security Council.

It now goes with saying that the ICC is a political body bidding for the interests of great powers. Under Article 15 of the Rome Statute, the Security Council is empowered to set the agenda for ICC in several material ways.

The impunity of veto-holders practically emasculates the court. For example, it cannot investigate the criminal culpability of individuals without the consent of the Security Council. Into the bargain, the Security Council has powers to deter any ICC investigation as long as it wishes to.

Therefore, whereas jurists of international law and unsuspecting members of the international community such as the victims of the LRA war in Northern Uganda may celebrate these historical reparations awards as a mark of the success of the ICC in implementing international law, we shouldn’t be blinded from the sinister grand framing of this body.

The essence of this award is to restore the tainted image of the ICC. It is staged to make ICC seem effective in delivering justice internationally. But on the other hand, the legitimization of the ICC by virtue of our celebration of such awards plays right into the hands of some great powers which are wielding neo-colonial power through the ICC. Under the guise of international law, these powers subtly shape and reshape the political order especially in developing countries by claiming to enact law behind ICC. Even worse, they shamelessly exclude themselves from the jurisdiction of this “international law”.

It is not that we do not wish for peace, stability and order in Africa and other developing countries. We do. But the effect of interventions by international well-wishers like the ICC and its attendant wheeler-dealers only play gimmicks with us politically without solving the real problems of Africa. By projecting the ICC as the go-to body to resolve political crimes in Africa, we are disarmed from cultivating the indigenous incentives for holding political criminals accountable to the people they wrong. Right now, Dominic Ongwen is beyond the reach of his victims; in a cosy prison cell in Norway. It is the global powers now waving the flag of success in dealing with the crimes he committed in Uganda and neighbouring countries. Back home, his victims watch him on television like a Hollywood movie star. The state of Uganda is merely a bystander watching its criminal serving a 25-year jail sentence about 6,919 km away from his crime scene.

This form of justice will never solve political problems in Africa. In fact, it is not intended to solve them. Instead, it is meant to postpone our agency in solving these problems ourselves, and as such, perpetually create a lacuna for “powerful states” to intervene in our “troubled countries” as messianic international liberators.

Unless we as African states manage these crises ourselves and pay the price for earning the means to contain political violence and dispensing political justice for political criminals by ourselves, we shall permanently be victimized by global powers through such bodies as the ICC under the guise of alleviating anarchy in Africa.

The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Development Watch Centre.


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