The Trial of Thomas Kwoyelo – a former Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) leader – is at the centre of efforts by the International Crimes Division (ICD) of the High Court of Uganda to bring accountability and justice for crimes committed during the 20 year LRA conflict in Northern Uganda. Crucial to these efforts has been the desire to put victims at the centre of the trial process, not least by incorporating victims’ participation in the trial, argues Patricia Bako.
The trial has been ongoing since July 2011. Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF) has been monitoring the trial since its commencement as well as engaging the victims through outreach as part of its support for access to justice efforts and transitional justice mechanisms in Uganda. In April this year, ASF led joint efforts with the Victim’s Counsel, the ICD Registrar and the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) to inform the victims’ communities of the latest trial developments, while collecting and relaying their views to relevant instances. These latest engagements have shown that victims’ right to participate in trials, a novel concept under Ugandan law, is at risk of remaining an empty concept as victims are disengaged from the prolonged and distant Court proceedings.
Lack of Information
During the various sessions held within the victims communities of Obiangic, Abera, Lamogi, Perecu and Pabbo, many participants deplored their lack of information about the developments in the case. However, at the same time, a substantial number of them showed a rising loss of interest in the case. As put by one of the participants:
‘This meeting is not important to us. We need to hear only results from the trial. This trial has been ongoing for so long. It should end soon so that we can get compensation for the harm we suffered.’
Perceivably, this attitude arises from two reasons.
First is the lack of direct involvement in the case. Although victims have been involved in the trial from its onset through their legal representatives (counsel), the victims themselves have not had the opportunity to be involved in the court proceedings. This is further reflected in the fact that in spite of the ruling in November last year, wherein 30 victims were allowed by the Court to participate in the trial, the modalities of this participation are yet to be defined by the Court.
The second reason is the protracted trial process. As noted above, the trial which commenced in July 2011, has been characterized by constant and lengthy adjournments, intermittent applications challenging the trial on the basis of amnesty as well as an undependable flow of resources to the Court to hear and adjudicate the case. Hearing of witnesses only commenced in March this year. In light of this, the legal entitlements encapsulated in the various statutes providing for participation of victims are at risk of being rendered meaningless if these concerns are not addressed.
The victims’ feeling of disillusionment in the trial process shows that interim relief efforts, projects and interventions are either insufficient or ineffective in so much as they are not meeting the victims communities at their most critical points of need. This is in reference to government and non-government actors alike. Many victims propose that interim support is provided to them in form of treatment for the physical harm they suffered and as well as tangible financial assistance for them to be able to provide basic necessities, most crucially to meet the needs of the many orphans left behind by the war. This highlights the need for a holistic Transitional Justice strategy that sees to and ensures the crucial interplay between varying and symbiotic justice, lasting peace and development mechanisms and initiatives.
It is important therefore that any gaps between the Court process and the victims be closed if the victims are to ‘own’ the trial process and consider any outcome from the trial as a worthwhile effort towards justice, peace and accountability. Possible ways this can be done include enhancing management of victims expectations with regard to the trial, ensuring constant communication between the victims and their legal representatives, and better targeting of victims needs pending completion of the trial.
As the first case before the ICD and the first to incorporate victims participation in Uganda, it is essential that all relevant court structures be set up and processes streamlined by the Court, alongside support from stakeholders to ensure that victims participation be as meaningful and effective as possible and set the right precedent for future trials before the Court.