The Extent of Harm

Tufts researchers provide new way for war crimes testimony to show wide-ranging effects
a young woman and her family in a village in Uganda
A young Ugandan woman who was abducted now back home with her family. Too often “reconstruction programs after conflict assume that as soon as the conflict is over, people’s lives will fall back in place,” said Teddy Atim. Photo: AP/Adelle Kalakouti
July 23, 2018

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In war crimes cases, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague usually hears from select victims who describe the horrors they survived. Such testimony is powerful, but it cannot convey the extent of the crimes’ impact on entire communities and on future generations. That’s why the Feinstein International Center has developed a new method for assessing and explaining the effects of violence, an innovation that holds promise for improving international criminal prosecution and post-conflict reparations.

“When people listen to only one or two or three victims, they might think those are isolated cases,” said Feinstein researcher Teddy Atim, F08, N08. By contrast, providing broader evidence “gives a better sense of what happened to people during the war and the lasting impact it has,” she explained.

In a new study, Atim and other Feinstein researchers surveyed a representative sample of a victimized population and used statistical analysis to compare their experiences to those of peers who were not subjected to war crimes. “You’re not just talking about an isolated case,” Atim said. “With this research, you’re looking at the big picture, comparing the general population of the entire sub-region with this victims’ population.”

The case in point for the Feinstein study was three massacres by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a militant group that led a brutal insurgency in northern Uganda. Commander Dominic Ongwen, who is now on trial in The Hague, allegedly oversaw the assaults, and is charged with 70 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, enslavement, and intentional attack on civilians.

“There needs to be much more long-term support to enable these communities to regain their lives,” said Teddy Atim. Atim appeared in May before the ICC as an expert witness in Ongwen’s ongoing trial, explaining how the violent attacks and abductions in 2004 at three camps for internally displaced people caused long-term harm to the victims and their families. The victims suffered more disability and worse mental health and have lower incomes and less wealth than other Ugandans who lived in the same region during the conflict but did not experience a war crime or crime against humanity, the Feinstein research found.

As of early 2018, when the study was done, the victims also had more difficulty getting access to clean drinking water and the assistance they needed. In addition, they reported experiencing almost three times more crimes in the past three years than those not affected by the war crimes. The researchers theorize that is perhaps because the victims are physically, mentally, and economically less able to protect themselves and because they face discrimination related to their experiences during the conflict.

The harm is also intergenerational, affecting children who were born long after the assaults, Atim said. Parents who can’t earn as much money because they lost their land or possessions or were disabled in the attacks, for example, often can’t feed their children and send them to school. Education is free in Uganda but involves out-of-pocket expenses.

Atim, a native of northern Uganda now pursuing a doctorate at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, conducted the research with Feinstein colleagues at the request of the attorneys representing the 2,605 victims in the ICC case. Her testimony drew from a 167-page report based on a recent survey of 396 victims, compared with information about the general war-affected population of northern Uganda culled from another recent survey the Feinstein team conducted. The research team included Anastasia Marshak, A06, a doctoral candidate at the Friedman School of Nutrition, and Dyan Mazurana, an associate research professor at the Fletcher School and the Friedman School who is research director at the Feinstein Center.

Feinstein’s new model should be replicated in other war crimes cases, Atim said. Combining statistical research with the testimonies of victims helps the judges better assess the effects of war crimes and shape post-conflict reparations programs, she said.

Too often, she explained, “reconstruction programs after conflict assume that as soon as the conflict is over and the guns are silent, people’s lives will fall back in place. But we don’t see that happening.” Because the effects are so long-term, reconstruction programs must be as well, she said. “There needs to be much more long-term support to enable these communities to regain their lives.”

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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