Tuesday, March 9, 2021
The ICC's Ongwen Decision Is a Leap Forward in Accountability for Gender-Based Crimes
By Shelby Logan (March 9, 2021)
On International Women's Day this Monday, gender justice activists worldwide were able to celebrate a long-awaited victory. In February, for the first time in history, the International Criminal Court (ICC) convicted an individual for forced pregnancy as a war crime. The Court, in a landmark verdict, found Dominic Ongwen of Uganda, a former commander in the militaristic anti-government group Lord’s Resistance Army, guilty of 61 charges, including the widest range of sexual crimes ever brought before the ICC.
Ongwen’s conviction on charges including sexual-based violence, forced pregnancy, and outrages upon personal dignity committed against women, is a necessary move forward for the ICC: After decades of advocacy, the international community is holding individuals accountable for sexual crimes against women during conflict.
Although sexual and gender-based crimes have always been part of conflict, international criminal proceedings during the 20th century omitted them from charges beginning with the Nuremberg Tribunal, which specifically excluded sexual crimes against women from its charter. It wasn't until 2002, the year the International Criminal Court was inaugurated, that sexual crimes against women as elements of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes were enumerated in international criminal proceedings. Yet, even if prosecutors initially charged a defendant with sexual crimes, the charges were usually dismissed later to prioritize charges for mass killings.
A major shift occurred in 2014, when the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC released the “Policy Paper on Sexual and Gender-Based Crimes.” Prosecutors began to introduce more charges for gender-based crimes but still failed to convict. On behalf of victims, gender-justice advocates began writing shadow reports pushing the Office of the Prosecutor to commit to charges and follow through with prosecution. As Ongwen’s personal story is also tragic—he was one of many young children who have been forced to join the Lord’s Resistance Army—the ICC found him guilty only for crimes committed after it considered him a “fully responsible adult.“ His conviction marks a first crucial step in accountability for sexual and gender-based war crimes and a turning point.
Yet, as the gender-justice community celebrates the result in the Ongwen case, it is clear that more change is needed in world courts. Even in Ongwen’s case, only charges against women-identifying persons were included. Several charges of sexual violence committed against men were left off the docket. While sexual violence against transgender and male-identifying persons is often underreported, the Ongwen decision as well as events unfolding in China and Myanmar, may provide ground for more inclusivity in prosecuting sexual-based crimes.
Advocates have a crucial window of opportunity to advance jurisprudence on sexual and gender-based violence crimes. Combined with the latest Strategic Plan for the ICC Office of the Prosecutor, which seeks to address the underreporting of sexual and gender-based crimes, and the recent Ongwen ruling, the priority of gender justice at the ICC has been pushed to the forefront.