New Reparations Decision from International Criminal Court Brings LJAC Projects to Life

February 28, 2024, The Hague.

The public gallery of Courtroom II at the International Criminal Court is filled with staff members from the Office of the Prosecutor, university students, and members of the public. They are gathered to observe Trial Chamber IX’s announcement of its long-anticipated order on reparations in the case of Prosecutor v. Ongwen. By sheer luck, I had already been scheduled that week to be in The Hague—the city in the Netherlands where several international tribunals are located—for clinic-related meetings with international judges, prosecutors, and victims’ advocates. I quickly registered for a spot to attend the reparations hearing in person.

Dominic Ongwen, a former high-ranking member of the Lord’s Resistance Army, was convicted in 2021 on 61 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Northern Uganda between July 1, 2002 and December 31, 2005. Specifically, Ongwen was found guilty of crimes committed in the context of four attacks on camps housing people internally displaced as a result of the decades-long conflict between the LRA insurgency and the Ugandan government, as well as sexual and gender-based crimes and the crime of conscripting children under the age of 15 for use in armed hostilities.

The Presiding Judge read out a summary of the Chamber’s decision slowly and deliberately. As the scope of the decision became clear, Ongwen appeared to grow increasingly uncomfortable. He did not attend the hearing in person, but rather via videolink from the detention center in Norway where he is serving out his 25-year sentence. In the end, the Chamber assessed Ongwen’s liability for reparations at approximately €52.4 million EUR, with the total number of potentially eligible direct and indirect victims calculated to be nearly 50,000.

Some of the most interesting features of the reparations decision concern the form and method of implementation. The entirety of the award is for collective community-based reparations focused on rehabilitation, and symbolic reparations of €750 EUR for each of the direct and indirect victims. Additionally, the full reparations decision, which recounts in detail the harm suffered by the victims, is considered a form of satisfaction in and of itself. Because Ongwen is indigent—in fact, Ongwen himself was forcibly abducted into the LRA as a child soldier in the late 1980s, which made his later conviction somewhat controversial, the Chamber instructed the ICC’s Trust Fund for Victims—a separate unit established in the Court’s founding treaty, the Rome Statute, funded by both public and private donations—to implement the award.

Due to the size of the reparations award and the fact that it includes measures for community rehabilitation, it likely will be some years before it can be fully implemented. Moreover, as the Chamber acknowledged, this award can only provide reparation to the direct and indirect victims of the crimes for which Ongwen was convicted, not every person or community who was harmed in the overall course of the conflict. Yet it is a crucial step forward.

I left the ICC that day feeling a mix of emotions, grateful for our LLS community and the talented, committed LJAC students who work tirelessly on behalf of victims in cases such as these. We are all connected.

Written by Professor Rajika Shah, director of the Loyola Justice for Atrocities Clinic.