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Academy of European Law

A unique take on international criminal law: re-enacting the Ongwen trial

The Academy of European Law (AEL) held its 2024 Summer Course on Human Rights in a new format: a ‘documentary role play’ based on the Ongwen trial.

08 July 2024 | Event

Final_AEL summer course HR 2024

On 17-28 June 2024, over 30 participants gathered at Villa Salviati, home to the Academy of European Law (AEL), for its Summer Course on Human Rights. This year, the course was held in a unique format: the re-enactment of parts of the Ongwen trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC), based on a script edited by EUI Professor Sarah Nouwen and Professor Wouter Werner (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam).

Throughout the two weeks, participants performed the play and actively engaged in fruitful debates, which were followed by critical reflection sessions led by experts Barney Afako, Liana Minkova, Zahara Nampewo, Josephine Ndagire, Lino Owor Ogora, Daniel R. Ruhweza, Sofia Stolk, and Warner ten Kate.

"Most international criminal law courses are based on the law, the statutes, the acts, and then we look at cases, but in doing so, we don't actually look at people. We look at what the judges said or what the most important point is, and that is how we learn law. But so much of law is not in these texts; so much of law is practice, it's human interaction in a courtroom, and the politics around the law. That's exactly why we chose this format and this case," explained Sarah Nouwen, Professor at the EUI Department of Law and Co-Director of the Academy of European Law.

Indeed, the trial of Dominic Ongwen, a former child soldier from Uganda turned commander in the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), provides a rich narrative that goes beyond legal statutes and acts, delving into the human stories and moral complexities and illustrating the profound impact of human experiences on legal proceedings.

"We followed the case from the moment it was first suggested to take it to the International Criminal Court to 20 years later when there was a conviction. We looked at all these moments, the reactions of people in Uganda, the press conference, and asked the participants to re-enact it based on a script," shared Professor Nouwen.

For Wouter Werner, Professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and co-convener of the AEL Summer Course, a more experiential learning experience was essential in the making of the course. "You get a different kind of reflection if you first experience something, because making sense of things is using your senses. Normally, we only think we think, but we are, of course, bodily creatures. When you do something like this, you engage all the different senses, and I think that really adds to the discussions."

The role play sessions allowed participants to experience first-hand the dynamics of courtroom interactions, witness testimonies, and the roles of various legal professionals, while discussing key themes such as the politics of international criminal justice, responsibility, duress, victim-perpetrators, and the role of victims in international criminal law.

"There is something about doing it, saying it, instead of just reading it. Participants pick up on very technical things such as why the prosecution brought in an expert witness, and why the court did not ask for an expert witness, to the fundamental questions about what it means to do 'justice' in a situation of long-term war and who defines justice. It really leads to fascinating discussions," reflected Professor Nouwen.

In reacting to his experience in the Summer Course, EUI Law Researcher Niels Hoek shared, "I think as lawyers we are used to Moot Courts and that kind of practice, but this is an actual re-enactment, which is quite different," he noted. "We're watching the show play out and afterwards we reflect on it together, and I think that's where the true learning comes in. You notice the mundane aspects of the case, the parts where normally you would skim over and get right to the good bits, but because you are now re-enacting them you see the case play out in a different way. I've learned a lot from those discussions afterwards."

For participant Betty Keulards, an undergraduate at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the role play sessions were extremely insightful in gaining a real understanding of the case. "I'm really happy to be a part of this immersive experience. It allows you to see the underlying aspects of participating in such a trial, like the tone and body language, that by studying it merely theoretically you might overlook, and enables you to grasp the power dynamics and reflect further on the ICC as an institution. Above all, it's so interesting and fun to do such a re-enactment; the theatrical element really adds to the insights of the Ongwen trial. Having experts present who know a lot about the history and context of the trial makes it extraordinary to experience and reflect on."

This year, in the framework of the Erasmus+ International Credit Mobility Programme, the Summer Course counted the participation of three professors and four master students from the University of Makerere in Uganda. "This is a particularly useful engagement for us at Makerere University, because one of the subjects that we teach at the graduate level is international criminal law. Of course, being from the country Ongwen comes from, we are interested in seeing the whole process and whether justice was achieved, because the situation of Ongwen was referred to the ICC by the government of Uganda," shared Professor Zahara Nampewo.

"This course is really interesting, particularly because of the methodology. […] It brings the learner into the trial itself and allows the learner to place themselves there and have a lived experience of what it was like during the trial. I think it is a higher version of learning, because you are not only focusing on the theory of international criminal law but also the practical aspects, allowing for reflections on what the feelings and the perceptions were," added Professor Nampewo.

For Chrispus Nampwera, a master student at the University of Makerere, the Summer Course was a great opportunity to dive deep into the trial. "Many Ugandans don’t know about how this trial went or what exactly happened, people don’t know the charges... This was a great opportunity for me to come and learn about what exactly happened, how the ICC handled the matter, who showed up […] The re-enactment made it easier for us to actually understand what happened and how it happened, the reactions from the lawyers, the presiding judges, witnesses, and how casual some of these people were and were taking these things."

The participants also emphasised the importance of having experts on various aspects of the trial present during the sessions, to guide everyone intellectually and give context. "I think experts who participated and shared their experience and what they went through helped to understand the reality, which is unwritten there, to see the process from a very different angle," shared Mykola Kolotylo, one of the two recipients of funding from the EUI Widening Europe Programme. Two other participants of the summer course received funding from the CIVICA for Ukraine initiative.

"Hearing from people who were actually there and knowing the roles that we are re-enacting has been really enriching, and knowing what was happening behind the curtains has given a different perspective of the case. It's been great, very intense!" added Bruna Gonçalves, Researcher at the EUI Department of Law.

Reflecting on the main takeaways of the course, EUI Law Researcher Jessica Wiseman highlighted the often-unsettling contrast between the emotional weight of traumatic events and the clinical nature of legal proceedings. "Watching the trial play out in real time really gives you an understanding of how, on the one hand, you're talking about these events which are so traumatising, but the infrastructure and the procedure of the court are very sterile. Seeing that juxtaposition, when you actually reflect on what we are talking about, is a very emotional experience, but then how it becomes translated in a legal space is really interesting to explore."

This year's AEL Summer Course on Human Rights successfully delved into the affective dimensions of justice through experiential learning, culminating in powerful performances and a deeper understanding of international criminal law. "We always talk about justice as if it is blind, as if it is rational, and I don't buy that. People are willing to fight and die for justice, you don't die for a rational argument, you die for something that you feel deeply about, and through art forms and performances, you get this on the table," concluded Professor Werner.

Last update: 08 July 2024

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