KONY 2012 – who are the real cynics here?


Joseph Kony, Lords Resistance Army
© Joram Jojo/Flickr  Global/IRIN

“On 30 September [2011], the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that the LRA has carried out 240 attacks so far this year, resulting in 130 deaths and 327 abductions, including 113 children in the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. An estimated 440,000 civilians continue to be displaced or living as refugees in the affected areas.”

Before last week, the above report did not inspire 100 million people from around the world to collectively consider what they could do to end this violence. In the past week, if you have been living under a technological rock and haven’t seen it, there has been a flurry of such engagement through Twitter hash tags, Facebook links and Youtube alerts for KONY 2012.  Created by US-based charity, Invisible Children, the 27 minute video argues (essentially) three things:

1)       Joseph Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), operates a guerilla style war in Northern Uganda, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan.  He has escaped arrest for 25 years.   The LRA, originally a secessionist movement, has become a messianic cult devoted to keeping Kony in power and avoiding arrest by Ugandan authorities.  There is no political agenda to the LRA’s continued existence.

2)       Kony has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) – in fact he was the first individual to face indictment by the ICC – for crimes against humanity and war crimes.  It is believed Kony has kidnapped, over the course of the conflict, between 25 000-60 000 children. Young children are murdered to frighten other children into becoming child soldiers in Kony’s LRA; others are forced to commit heinous crimes such as killing their parents and siblings; and thousands of girls have been forced into sexual slavery for the LRA soldiers.

3)       The United States government, under President Obama’s administration, agreed in late October 2011 to send 100 special operations ‘combat-ready’ troops to assist the Ugandan military to find and arrest Kony.  The Invisible Children KONY 2012 campaign is directed at alerting people to this mission, ensuring that the Obama administration knows that the world supports this mission, and make Kony an ‘infamous’ figure to ensure that by the end of 2012 as many people as possible know who he is, what crimes he has committed and why every possible means should be engaged to ensure his capture.

It is easy to view this campaign with skepticism.  To argue, as others have done, that Invisible Children exaggerates the cause, the campaign is misleading and construes the situation to further the advocacy agenda of Invisible Children.  Others propose that supporting the Ugandan military is support for a military that should face serious questions about its own conduct.  Moreover, it has been argued that the removal of Kony will not see the end of the LRA, the end of abject poverty in the region where he resides, nor will it remove the guerilla warfare tactics that has plagued the Great Lakes region for too long.

Much of the dissention plays on the notion that Invisible Children is a cynical operation that serves its own interests above anyone else.  Perhaps most misleading of all though is the notion that such cynics of KONY 2012 are basing their critique on ‘real fact’ while Invisible Children deploys phony numbers and arguments.  There is no doubt Invisible Children goes for a simple message and a simple solution.  But does this mean we shouldn’t support the objective of KONY 2012 – to capture Kony? I consider some flaws in the cynics’ argument below.

First, the claim that the KONY 2012 campaign doesn’t deal with complexity.  KONY 2012 achieved in 48 hours what UNICEF and other agencies have been attempting to do for 25 years.  To reach people sitting on their computers in Melbourne, Chicago and Manchester and communicate to them directly about the plight of a region that is plagued with instability and dramatic human rights abuses by all parties – state and non-state.  How is it a negative to shine a light on a place and situation that, if being honest, very few people care about much less alone know of outside of Africa?  As United Nations Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs, B. Lynn Pascoe, said of the KONY 2012 campaign:

“One of our biggest problems with the LRA and dealing with the LRA has been getting the attention to it. So I think it is very good that this [KONY 2012 campaign] gets around, that people see what’s there.”

Second, this campaign promotes an unrealistic situation that in reality is not as bad as it is portrayed, and the problems that remain will not be so easily solved by Kony’s removal.  This is true.  The KONY 2012 campaign won’t solve poverty, horizontal inequalities or lead to the end of every guerilla movement in the Great Lakes region.  Joseph Kony is not at his height of power and dominance, contrasted to his brutality in the 1990s and early 2000s.  However, the LRA does remain at large in a very unstable region.  As long as LRA exists in particular locations, medical assistance and development projects are hard to distribute for people constantly on the move from LRA’s violence.  For the broader region, the presence of the LRA is a ‘menace’ to existing peace arrangements and in recent years has particularly terrorized populations who are still recovering from DRC’s civil war. Right now, approximately 320 000 people remain displaced in the Eastern DRC because of LRA’s attacks. Moreover, those who question whether the removal of Kony will achieve the dismantling of the LRA should look to what the Head of US African Command, Commander Carter Ham, said in an interview on the deployment in November 2011:

The group “will probably wither” if Kony is captured.  “This is not like another organization where if you take the top guy out somebody else can step in,” General Ham said. ”It really is about him personally.”

Third, support for KONY 2012 is support for a Ugandan military and government that commits human rights abuses.  Ostensibly, the charge here is that the US African Command assistance to Uganda military  – which the KONY 2012 campaign supports – is sullying its reputation and condoning the activity of the Ugandan military outside of the LRA operation. It may be trite, but worth mentioning, this is not the first time that a Western military has engaged in joint operations with a military with a less than perfect human rights record (few who talk about this comment on the implications of NATO forces cooperating with the repressive and abusive Uzbekistan government). A deeper, more significant point to consider is whether such engagements allow for dialogue and training activities that pertain to human rights and wouldn’t be possible without such joint operations.  While we will not be able to immediately trace behavioral changes due to such joint operations, it surely can’t harm the Ugandan military to observe the professional conduct of US special armed forces up close during such serious reconnaissance missions that require engagement with armed groups and civilian populations.

The final argument is that KONY 2012 is a self-serving promotion of Invisible Children that results in little benefit for real victims of LRA.  No doubt Invisible Children is engaging in political activism and advocacy that has a particular message based on particular beliefs.  Nor is there evidence that Obama administration is planning to withdraw the US army advisers…but why is it a problem to highlight this operation and ensure its popular support? Why does this make the KONY 2012 campaign offensive?  Does anyone want to seriously suggest that Kony should not be arrested?  Should not face justice?  That the victims of LRA in 2011 are less important because their numbers are comparatively less than in 1996? There are rarely situations in the world where knowing the right thing to do and achieving it is possible.  Syria, for example, is a tragic illustration of the international community’s political and humanitarian limits.  Kony’s indictment by the ICC has the support of all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (US, UK, China, Russia and France).  The Ugandan government, and neighboring governments, support the ICC’s arrest warrant for Kony.  The US African Command Facebook page is a ‘friend’ of the KONY 2012 campaign!  If none of these important political actors find the KONY 2012 campaign offensive…then I have to question whether opposition to KONY 2012 is itself a cynical ploy to gain notoriety of alternative beliefs, missions and political objectives.

Kony’s arrest will not solve all of the post conflict traumas that he and others have wrecked upon this region.  But there should be no doubt that his arrest and facing justice for what he has done (and continues to do) is right and should happen regardless of anything else. 

Sometimes we need to keep in mind that politics can be that simple and hopeful.

Sara Davies – Human Protection Hub

Author: protectiongateway

Human Protection Hub

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