Joseph Kony Was Here

April 26, 2013

Satellite image of likely LRA camp in Kafia Kingi. Click to see full image . (Photo Credit: Digitial Globe 2013).
Satellite image of likely LRA camp in Kafia Kingi. Click to see full image . (Photo Credit: Digitial Globe 2013).

Now where will the US go on the ICC?
While international justice has seen many milestones over the last months, including the surrender of “The Terminator” Bosco Ntaganda, one of the most well known fugitives from the International Criminal Court (ICC) remains on the loose. Joseph Kony, the Lord Resistance Army’s (LRA) notorious leader, has so far evaded arrest. However, as of today, attempts to locate his whereabouts have gotten a considerable boost. In fact, thanks to satellite imagery, we might know the exact coordinates of his recent location.

We recently provided some support to our colleagues from The Resolve, who today published the most authoritative account to date of the LRA leadership’s movements over the last three years, concluding that the LRA set up an encampment in the Sudanese controlled Kafia Kingi enclave. The report Hidden in Plain Sight: Sudan’s Harboring of the LRA in the Kafia Kingi Enclave, 2009 – 2013, draws on extensive field research, including testimonies from several LRA defectors. Their findings are corroborated by satellite image analysis that tracks in detail the establishment and development of the suspected camp since late 2011. It was abandoned sometime between mid-February and mid-March of this year, likely following an unrelated encounter with a group of LRA fighters that might have revealed the secret LRA location in Kafia Kingi.

Crisis mapping and the LRA
Crisis mapping tools have been used extensively in the context of this conflict, both to track activities of the scattered LRA groups, as well as for geospatial predictive analytics. However, it is the first time we are aware of that commercially available satellite imagery was used to track a suspected war criminal, adding to the growing list of applications of remote sensing for human rights purposes. The analysis was commissioned by our very own Science for Human Rights Program, and conducted by the DigitalGlobe Analytics Center. While this was an exciting proof of concept for someone like me who specializes in utilizing remote sensing for human rights monitoring, there are some important lessons to be drawn.

First, the identification of the likely camp in satellite images was only possible due to the detailed, traditional research conducted by Resolve investigators. As my colleague Michael Poffenberger from The Resolve put it: “To be credible, satellite imagery analysis usually needs to be paired with other sources of information.” I couldn’t agree more.

Second, and most importantly, despite all technological progress, satellite images of the likely location of an ICC fugitive do not yield accountability. I am hoping that Joseph Kony and other ICC inductees from the LRA will soon be arrested in accordance with international law and face a fair trial in The Hague. However, eradicating the root causes that led to the emergence and “survival” of the LRA will take a long time. Only strengthening the rule of law and ending impunity for grave human rights abuses, no matter if committed by armed groups or security forces, will lead to much needed structural changes. This argument increases in urgency as the Central African Republic (CAR) continues to descend into lawlessness and insecurity, providing a potential new safe haven for the LRA.

Will Obama amp up his leadership on international justice?
With likely protracted turmoil in CAR and at a time when countries such as Chad are abrogating their obligations to arrest ICC fugitives, it is crucial that the US reaffirms its commitment to the rule of law and a strong global system for accountability – international justice for the worst crimes under international law goes far beyond Joseph Kony.

International justice mechanisms such as the ICC kick in when domestic mechanisms are not able or willing to hold perpetrators accountability. More than 120 countries have joined the ICC to date. Countries such as the United States, however, who repeatedly claim their support for bringing Kony and other perpetrators of atrocities to justice, have not. And while I applaud the US government’s recent expansion of their War Crimes Rewards Program to include Kony and others, the ultimate signal of leadership on accountability – the reaffirmation of the US signature to the Rome Statute of the ICC – remained until now as elusive as Kony himself.

However, as my colleague Scott Edwards eloquently pointed out recently, “All Roads Lead to Rome” for the Obama Administration. We believe that President Obama has a historic opportunity in his second term to cement the United States’ commitment to international justice by reaffirming its signature to the treaty that established the ICC. With the renewed attention on Joseph Kony and the LRA, we hope you’ll join our campaign calling on President Obama to write just one letter for a letter, and signal your support for leadership in bringing fugitives from the ICC to justice.

This post is also available in Spanish.