Krakow Film Festival 2024

The case of Dominic Ongwen

It is certainly refreshing when invited speakers at a film talk are unafraid to venture into contested waters well beyond the bounds of a film’s story. This year’s edition of Movies that Matter featured one of such talks, which took place in connection with the Dutch premiere of Theatre of Violence, a Danish-German documentary production directed by Lukasz Konopa and Emil Langballe. The film went on to pick up the Grand Jury Documentary Award at the Dutch human rights film festival.

Theatre of Violence Emil Langballe, Lukasz Konop
Theatre of Violence, a film by Emil Langballe, Lukasz Konop

Child soldier

Theatre of Violence spotlights the well-known case of Dominic Ongwen, a former child abductee who rose in the ranks of Joseph Kony’s notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a militant group that has for years waged war in northern Uganda, unfurling immense suffering and violence in the region. Ongwen was a nine-year-old schoolboy when the LRA abducted him, conscripted him as a child soldier and forced him into extreme violence, followed by a litany of heinous crimes he wilfully committed then as an adult. Years later, Ongwen became the first child soldier turned commander who faced charges before the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague for war crimes (he was indicted for crimes that he had committed as an adult; under the Rome Statute, the ICC has no jurisdiction over persons under 18). In 2021, Ongwen was found guilty of 61 of the 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between 2002 and 2005, including rape, sexual enslavement, child abduction and murders. The verdict sentenced Ongwen to a prison term of 25 years, which some have claimed—to much contention—to be a rather hefty sentence for a former child soldier who had himself previously suffered from brutal violence at the hands of the LRA.

Theatre of Violence is an intriguing piece of filmmaking that confronts you with difficult questions about justice: How do we ensure that justice is served when the perpetrator is also a victim? And how can justice be achieved for the victims of his crimes? «My view is that he [Ongwen] should not have ended up in this court [the ICC]», argued former UN diplomat Warner ten Kate during the film’s talk, who was involved in the 2006 – 2008 Juba Peace Talks between the government of Uganda and the LRA. «What the prosecutor said is that the fact that he was abducted is tragic, but it does not give him a free pass. However, the question here is: Was he so brainwashed in a system with so much violence that he was not able to properly see right from wrong? If you look at the court proceedings, you do not need to be a specialist to see that the ICC shies away from [going in-depth on] that question», ten Kate noted.

Theatre of Violence is an intriguing piece of filmmaking that confronts you with difficult questions about justice

Ambiguous status

In her 2009 paper on ‘complex political perpetrators’, Erin K. Baines discussed Ongwen’s «ambiguous status», which she argued is not unique to «fragile African states» where tens of thousands of youths have been abducted and recruited to join armed groups in the past years. Ongwen was one of the 30,000 – 60,000 children and youths abducted by the LRA since the onset of the conflict. However, cases like his do raise «vexing issues of justice» when former child soldiers, whom human rights advocates seek to protect from prosecution, become offenders themselves, producing more and more victims.

The rigid victim-perpetrator dichotomy seems to persist in contemporary transitional justice and remains a daunting dilemma for a court of law. Marieke de Hoon, a scholar in International Criminal Law, who moderated the Theatre of Violence talk at Movies that Matter, engaged with the questions of this problematic binary: «[The ICC] do not have means to have alternative sentences or restorative justice, that is also probably the thing that is most striking in this case that we have been following now for many years—you see that it is a court of law that has to decide on the guilt or innocence, these hard lines, black or white, but what we are dealing here is that a victim that has become a perpetrator.»

While Ongwen’s agency and responsibility for these atrocities must not be negated, nor must his perpetratorhood be justified by elements of his victimhood, it may be useful to look at Ongwen’s victimisation experiences to understand the deeper conflict dynamics and complex reality in which the crimes were committed. The polarising binary, which leads us to see the people’s roles in a conflict through the victim-perpetrator lens, may deprive us of more nuanced stories about conflict experiences in certain geographies where lines between victims and perpetrators are blurred by cycles of violence. «The reality is more ambiguous», wrote Sanne Weber in her 2021 paper ‘Defying the Victim-Perpetrator Binary: Female Ex-combatants in Colombia and Guatemala as Complex Political Perpetrators’. That may be particularly pertinent to drawn-out conflicts or crises, where persons, in this case, young children, are moulded into the role of perpetrators after enduring extreme suffering at the hands of others and being forced into violence. The notion of ‘complex political perpetratorhood’ can therefore serve as a springboard for a conversation that recognises both person’s victimisation and traumas and their agency and responsibility for violent crimes, with them being possibly co-existent rather than mutually exclusive.

Theatre of Violence Emil Langballe, Lukasz Konop
Theatre of Violence, a film by Emil Langballe, Lukasz Konop

Western centric justice

In her 2016 paper that zeroes in on the case of post-genocide Rwanda, Margarida Hourmat problematises such flawed binaries characterising contemporary transitional justice, which is «overwhelmingly dominated by a retributive approach.» This approach, in turn, sees justice as being delivered through criminal prosecution and legal accountability of individuals allegedly most responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and aggression. However, as Rosemary Nagy argued in her 2008 paper in the very determination of «who is accountable for what and when», transitional justice reveals to be «a discourse and practice imbued with power.» This argument also seems to hold true in the case of Ongwen, with some denouncing the ICC’s cherry-picking in prosecution, which has landed Ongwen behind bars, while other LRA rebels/commanders and the Ugandan government forces — which have also committed violent crimes against civilians, the very people they are expected to protect—seem to walk free. This debate ultimately leads to a string of imperative questions about Western-centric justice strategies and «technocratic and decontextualised solutions» that are administered in the local processes of post-conflict reconciliation and a broader topic of justice arguably used as a vehicle for recolonisation.

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Sevara Pan
Sevara Pan
Journalist and film critic.

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