ICC challenges: Perspectives from Uganda’s student community

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Students for Global Democracy Uganda, a student-led non-profit organization, has been holding debates among academic institutions as part of its initiative to popularize the role and relevance of the ICC among students in the country. With Dominic Ongwen currently standing trial at the Court for crimes allegedly committed as the former commander of the Lord’s Resistance Army, accounting for perspectives on the ICC from communities on the ground will be critical in ensuring that meaningful justice is delivered.

The debates were held among a total of 1,688 participants across 10 high schools in the districts of Jinja, Wakiso, Kampala and Mukono.

Aiming to increase awareness of the role and relevance of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the debates gave students a platform to research, mobilize and engage in matters concerning the Court. They also presented an opportunity for students and teachers to voice their issues about ICC and African Courts of Justice in promoting justice.


Getting the word out

The debates revealed that an understanding of the role and relevance of the International Criminal Court (ICC) among young citizens in Uganda is impeded by restricted access to information on the Court in high schools, where the majority of the youth are found.

One-on-one engagements with citizens in Kampala, Jinja ,Wakiso and Mukono also showed that the ICC is well-known, but not popular among citizens, the majority of whom are aware of the ICC  but unfamiliar with its jurisdiction as an international criminal court.

Furthermore, perceptions of the Court were affected by students conducting research relevant to the Court who found that certain relevant information was classified. This limited access to information was perceived as an infringement of human rights.

In order to address this, all 15 participating schools provided three students each to act as ICC ambassadors among the student community. These individuals were instructed by SGD-Uganda to equip them with all necessary information to take the responsibility of sustaining discussion about the ICC in schools.

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Justice delayed, is justice denied

Delays in cases being addressed by the ICC, including the trial of Dominic Ongwen, were identified by students and teachers as a challenge.

The trial of Dominic Ongwen itself was a point of contention, with the International Criminal Court seen to be in contravention with national laws under the Ugandan Constitution which “recognizes a child as a person under the age of 18, the law further provides that age of criminal responsibility for children is 12 years. In such cases, a child who is involved in the commission of crimes is liable to prosecute but will be sentenced if found guilty –except if he becomes of the age”. By contrast, the International Criminal Court is not able to prosecute anyone younger than 18 years old. This point was raised during the debate between Jinja Secondary School and Kibuli School which argued whether or not Dominic Ongwen should be held accountable for crimes committed during his childhood.

Ongwen trial: Dividing discussions on accountability in Uganda


The ICC and Africa

Students and teachers held the view that the International Criminal Court is an instrument used to discriminate against the African continent, due to the first eight cases before the ICC being focused on African states. However, participants saw withdrawals as a significant challenge as they felt that constant re-amendments to the judiciary and constitutions of many African states brought about a need for an independent body to promote global justice.

Students saw the alternative for African countries withdrawing from the ICC as problematic due to Act 46 of the Malabo protocol, which grants immunity to sitting heads of states even when the latter have been accused of committing international crimes.  

This immunity was further identified as a challenge in terms of obtaining compliance from Member States, particularly during a debate between Kibuli Secondary School and Nabunsa Girls School, where the discussion focused on the case of Sudanese President Mr Omar al-Bashir who is sought by the Court for crimes allegedly committed in Darfur by members of the Sudanese Armed Forces.

The perception of the International Criminal Court as biased against African countries was therefore thought to be used as a tool by African Heads of State to affect citizen engagement in ICC proceedings. The political tension caused by announced withdrawals was seen as restricting institutions and citizens from voicing concerns about the Court.


Going forwards  

According to SGD-Uganda, the debates on the ICC changed the perception of the young people of the Court as an inefficient institution to try African leaders. The ICC is a Court of last resort; it only gets involved when a State Party does not or is unable to genuinely undertake investigations itself and bring to trial individuals suspected of committing the most serious crimes of concern to the international community .

100 copies of a student guide to the ICC have been provided to 15 school libraries to sustain research and reading about the developments at the Court.

The ICC debates also created an opportunity for students to engage with policy makers and lawyers, including Hon Latif Ssebagala,  MP of Kawempe North, and Nalukoola Luyimbazi who is Advocate of the High Court on issues regarding Uganda and the International Criminal Court.


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