To Be Responsible for Ourselves: Dominic Ongwen and Defences Before the International Criminal Court

by Clare Frances Moran

[Clare Frances Moran is a Lecturer in Law at Edinburgh Napier University.]

The trial of Dominic Ongwen, in which he is pleading not guilty to the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, raises the question of how he may defend what he has done as commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army. The discussion of the use of duress for child soldiers has been undertaken elsewhere, but a more general examination of the defences is useful at this juncture. The prosecution of a former child soldier confronts a classic dilemma for the Court, the Prosecutor and, indeed, all with a vested interest in international criminal justice: When boy soldiers become adults and then, commanders, how do we deal with the aftermath of the crimes they commit? Should they be tried for all the crimes committed from childhood onwards, those committed in adulthood, or those that were committed while they were in command? Arguably this is where the issue of defences under the Rome Statute ought to play a role; could the defences be used to exonerate the individual or to mitigate their conduct?

The defences under the Rome Statute most likely to be utilised by individuals in the position of Ongwen would be mental disease or defect, destroying their capacity to perceive the wrongfulness of their actions, or duress which compelled them to act. Under article 31(1)(a), the first defence is open to those who can demonstrate that they suffer from a mental disease or defect that destroys their ‘capacity to appreciate the unlawfulness or nature of his or her conduct, or capacity to control his or her conduct to conform to the requirements of law.’ One of the two tests should be satisfied: either the accused did not know what he or she was doing as a consequence of mental disease or a defect in perception, or they lacked the control to conform to the criminal law that can be expected of the average person, again as a consequence of the defect or disease. The wording of the defence presents a complex set of question which would require expert opinion: what kind of illnesses would permit the use of the defence? Regarding the idea of a ‘defect,’ would this need to be medically or psychologically evidenced? From a legal perspective, it may be possible to argue that the brutality to which Ongwen was subjected altered his frame of mind so substantially that it ought to constitute a mental defect. As a consequence, it may be impossible to expect him to conform to the normative strictures which apply to most individuals, based on the impact on him of the treatment he encountered from such a young age. The experiences of child soldiers are well-documented, and their suffering is acute; this is beyond doubt. Fatou Bensouda’s opening statement at Ongwen’s trial demonstrates amply their vulnerability: she gives the example of child soldiers too small to properly carry the weapons which drag along the ground after them. In our search for international criminal justice, it is difficult to acknowledge that the worst crimes may be carried out by those who were originally victims themselves, leading to significant moral problems in pursuing their prosecution. Returning to the Rome Statute, Ongwen may qualify for the defence of mental defect, rather than mental disease, given that there is, at least, an arguable case that he cannot possibly be expected to control his behaviour following a lifetime of appalling treatment which may have resulted in psychological damage constituting a mental defect.

The defences of intoxication and mistake are likely to be outwith the scope of his pleading: the drafting of the Statute views intoxication as a short-term phenomenon, while his crimes were committed over a period of years. It is without doubt that the charges have been confirmed in a way which puts beyond doubt the mistaken commission of any of them, thus mistake would be unavailable.

This leaves duress as a defence, which highlights a key problem of the defence itself in what may transpire to be its first use before the ICC. The drafting of duress in the Statute indicates that it is available because he may meet the first test. Many child soldiers are threatened with death and brutalised, to anaesthetise them to the violence they are expected to display at a later point. This sort of treatment would undoubtedly constitute the serious threat anticipated by the defence in article 31(1)(d). However, the qualifications of a necessary and reasonable reaction, as well as the proportionality requirement of not causing ‘a greater harm than the one sought to be avoided’ would make it difficult for Ongwen and, indeed, anyone to plead the defence successfully. Duress appears stronger in the Statute than it actually is; it would be nearly impossible for it to be pleaded successfully in any circumstance. Duress in the Rome Statute is something of a façade. It constitutes a nod to Cassese’s dissent in Erdemovic, heeding the warning to avoid setting intractable standards of behaviour. However, it has been so tightly drafted that it is virtually inconceivable that it could ever apply to any cases involving serious physical harm of another person. It is questionable that Erdemovic himself would even have been able to use the defence, would he appear tomorrow before the ICC.

The issue of defences appears natural to a domestic criminal lawyer, but the issue is amplified at the international level because of the crimes that concern the ICC. The desire to include defences in the Rome Statute is a laudable aim, and one which honours Cassese’s legacy. However, the way in which the defences does not suggest that each has been considered as they might have. The distinction between mental defect and disease in article 31(1)(a) demonstrates thoughtful consideration of the problems regarding evidence of psychological, as well as psychiatric, problems. However, the defence of duress does not demonstrate consideration of how difficult it would be to meet the tests specified. The variable geometry of deliberation prior to the drafting of the defences is evident.

Defences in international criminal law are possible, but ought to be fairly and thoughtfully considered, paying heed to a key message in Cassese’s dissent: that there are broad and creative ways in which individuals may mistreat one another, and that international criminal justice must be prepared for these eventualities. The issue of defences connects to a key aspect of international criminal justice which must be considered when the defences are reformed: when is it just not to find war criminals guilty?

http://opiniojuris.org/2016/12/19/to-be-responsible-for-ourselves-dominic-ongwen-and-defences-before-the-international-criminal-court/

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