Breaking Through the Legal Binary: Media Labelling of Dominic Ongwen as a Victim–Perpetrator

Published date01 June 2024
AuthorIzabela Steflja,Jessica Trisko Darden,Amanda Wintersieck
Date01 June 2024
Subject MatterArticles
Breaking Through the Legal
Binary: Media Labelling of
Dominic Ongwen as a
Izabela Stef‌lja
Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada
Jessica Trisko Darden
and Amanda Wintersieck
Virginia Commonwealth University, USA
Individuals formerly involved in armed groups are positioned in the victimperpetrator
binary by legal systems and societies. Media participates in this process and inf‌luences
the relationship between law and society by reproducing or challenging legal and social
designations. We assess the relationship between the International Criminal Courts
(ICC) prosecution of Dominic Ongwen, a former child soldier in Ugandas Lords
Resistance Army (LRA), and media representations of Ongwen. We conduct a content
analysis of 779 Ugandan, African, and international newspapersEnglish-language articles
published between January 2005 and October 2022. We f‌ind that media coverage
focuses on Ongwens adult roles in the group, including as an LRA leader, largely repro-
ducing the ICCs portrayal of the accused. A minority of articles acknowledge a more
complex status and increase in frequency once Ongwens ICC trial is underway. An
important faction challenges the ICCs narrative, with non-Africa-based media present-
ing a more complex depiction of Ongwen.
International Criminal Court, Dominic Ongwen, complex perpetrators, Lords Resistance
Army, child soldiers, Uganda, media, victimperpetrator
Corresponding author:
Izabela Stef‌lja, Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada.
Email: istef‌
Social & Legal Studies
2024, Vol. 33(3) 443466
© The Author(s) 2023
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/09646639231195310
How societies and legal systems label individuals associated with armed groups inf‌lu-
ences where they are positioned in the victimperpetrator binary. Media participates in
this process and inf‌luences the relationship between law and society by producing, repro-
ducing, or challenging the legal and social designations adopted by courts. This article
explores the politics of representation through the labels that are applied to individuals
who have an ambiguous and/or contested status in armed conf‌lict: former child
members of armed groups. In particular, we focus on the indictment and prosecution
of Dominic Ongwen at the International Criminal Court (ICC) and examine to what
extent media outlets reproduce or challenge the ICCs representation of Ongwen. This
analysis is signif‌icant because scholars have argued that simplistic international legal con-
ceptionsin particular of victimhood and of perpetrationare not representative of how
violence and post-violence processes are experienced in reality by affected communities
and individuals (Akenroye and Clarke, 2022).
Eleven years after his indictment, and following more than 4 years in court, the ICC
found Ongwen guilty of 25 crimes against humanity and 32 war crimes committed
between July 2002 and December 2005 while he was a senior member of the Lords
Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA is an anti-government militant group led by the cha-
rismatic Joseph Kony. The group initially adhered to an extremist Christian millenarian-
ism; however, the motivations of both the group and its members are multifaceted (Vinci,
2007). The conf‌lict between the LRA and the Ugandan government extends well beyond
the period covered by Ongwens trial, as the LRAs violence began in 1988 shortly after
President Yoweri Museveni seized power. This conf‌lict is unique in part due to the wide-
spread recruitment of children into the LRA ranks. The LRA abducted at least 20,000
boys and girls over a period of 20 years, including Ongwens abduction as a youth in
the late 1980s (Kelly et al., 2016). The dual role of children as both victims and perpe-
trators is a key feature of LRA culture, structure, and command (Akhavan, 2005;
Strandberg Hassellind, 2021).
The legacy of the extensive inclusion of children, many of whom reached the age of
majority while associated with the LRA, is central to our research in two ways. First, the
prevalence of child soldiering has been a challenge for post-conf‌lict justice both in
Uganda and at the ICC. Ongwens indictment, prosecution, and sentencing spurred exten-
sive debate and scholarship on complex perpetrators at the domestic and international
legal levels. Second, Uganda is also the genesis of the mediatization of child soldiers
through social media campaigns such as Kony 2012, which provided a singular framing
of the LRA conf‌lict (Karlin and Matthew, 2012). We leverage this unique context to
examine how the media engages with and reproduces local and international narratives
about child soldiering within the LRA and, in particular, Ongwens ambiguous status
in the conf‌lict as an adult child soldier.
Except for the work of a select few authors (Baines, 2009; Beier, 2015; Wagnsson
et al., 2010), children as something more than civilian victims of conf‌lict have been
left out of international relations and security studies scholarship, even though feminist
scholar Enloe pointed out the centrality of children to security years ago (Enloe, 2010;
Zalewski and Enloe, 1995). Beier (2011, 2015, 2020), for instance, has shown that
444 Social & Legal Studies 33(3)

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