#Kony2012 and the Warping Logic of Atrocity

March 9, 2012

Joseph Kony Uganda LRA
Joseph Kony (STUART PRICE/AFP/Getty Images)

In the past 48 hours, there has been a flood of criticism of Invisible Children’s #Kony2012 campaign—much of it fair, some of it less so.

My first exposure to IC’s work was some time ago when—with Resolve—they launched the LRA Crisis Tracker. In stark contrast to the criticisms of implicit disempowerment of affected people by the Kony2012 campaign, this tool empowers communities through radio and digital communications to effectively form an overlapping system of neighborhood watch in LRA-affected areas. It is—in short—good work, and represents the promise of access to the benefits of science and technology, whether for underprivileged people in the US, or communities facing security threats in Uganda and elsewhere.

Indeed there has been a lot of criticism about Invisible Children as an organization and their operations, which I’ll leave to others to assess. But as for this highly visible campaign around Kony (and it is about Kony, to be clear—not human rights in Uganda), and for all the pointed criticism, there is a higher-order good to be obtained through the buzz and awareness created by this campaign.

As a trivial example, until this week, I’d never refer to Kony without detailed explanation of his crimes, and his fugitive status from the ICC (saving precious keystrokes for the bigger picture).

Kony is but one fugitive from justice among many, operating in a region faced with systemic human rights challenges requiring effective and transformative policy overhauls. A twitter campaign is fine, and the awareness—if complete and responsible—is a public good.

LRA Affected Areas

More substantively, the public awareness of the campaign opens up opportunity to address the devastating human rights situation in the three countries the LRA has been operating of late. For one, the people of Central African Republic (CAR) have suffered decades of violence and abuse by government forces and armed groups like the LRA, and impunity for murder, rape, and the destruction of whole communities is rife.

In eastern DRC and Orientale province—where armed groups such as the LRA have been plentiful—the fighting has been characterized by the suffering of civilians at the hands of armed groups and security forces alike. For most of these crimes, impunity reigns in the DRC.

And finally in the world’s newest country, the people of South Sudan face constant threats, and a security sector in desperate need of overhaul. In South Sudan, Amnesty has documented serious abuses by the SPLA—which has pursued the LRA at various points.

Importantly, in all of the LRA affected areas, the security apparatuses of the state have been implicated in gross human rights abuses. In Uganda, whether during combat operations or even against protesters, threats have come not simply from Kony, but by some Ugandan forces themselves. Even LRA members themselves have been victims of abuses by the UPDF.

One of the most consistent criticisms of the Kony2012 campaign is that this complexity is lost.  The interplay between security threats in the form of armed groups, security sector actors without proper human rights training or internal vetting, country-specific challenges to rule of law, and the multi-national nature of security threats represented by the LRA’s movements creates policy challenges like no other faced by civil society, governments, and international actors on the continent. I’m sympathetic to those trying—with what I believe to be the best of intentions—to address those policy questions.

One Answer: Deal with my Rage

Josephy Kony, Okot Odhiambo, and Dominic Ongwen (along with the deceased Raska Lukwiya, and presumed deceased Vincent Otti) of the LRA were all indicted by the ICC on July 8, 2005. Among the first indictees of the new “court of last resort,” the failure to arrest and surrender Kony for due process has been a blemish for the promise of the court. Amnesty International and others have long advocated for the arrest of LRA commanders, and have expressed deep disappointment where some have escaped accountability.

What compels me to support efforts to bring Kony to justice—and by “justice,” I do mean facing due process in a competent court—is the same thing that compels me to act on Syria, and work with people of conscience to see an ICC referral for the atrocities there. It something almost primal—and discordant with the principles I rationally know to be of value. In a word, it is anger.

It is not simply anger in response to the crimes that people with whom I share a common humanity will perpetrate on others. It is something more like rage. In the midst of the most atrocious crimes—murder, extermination, forced recruitment of children, sexual violence, and the destruction of whole communities—the outrage of the aware can quickly warp a moral compass. I certainly sense it in myself.

A telling photo, heavily denounced—and properly so—showing IC founders with the SPLA, and carrying weapons has gotten much attention in media. (As an aside, the SPLA has been responsible for child recruitment as well.) But in a way, I understand why a person would hold those arms. Indeed, I understand why someone would take up arms. I say that knowing well that the flood of arms into the region is one reason the LRA and other groups have been able to create so much harm. I understand the outrage…and the desire to do anything to right the most egregious wrongs.

And it is that very outrage that makes the effective functioning of a court of last resort like the ICC so very important. We need due process to secure justice for the most egregious crimes against our collective humanity. Without it, we risk our humanity.

From a statement released by Amnesty yesterday, a reminder:

“The death of any of the accused men would deny justice to the victims of LRA abuses.”

Though I couldn’t support the Kony2012 campaign as it stands, the value of it and the widespread, impassioned push-back  is real.  Through domestic laws, international agreements, and the creation of a criminal court of last resort for the worst crimes, we have in place a principled mechanism to secure justice and accountability, and plenty of work to do to support it.

The world should know who Kony is. And Omar al-Bashir. And Ntaganda. And Haroun. Kushayb. Senussi. Hussein.  As well as many others who are fugitives from the ICC, and fugitives from justice in general.  But to effect change, we need to take informed action.

Follow me on twitter @sxedwards

Join our online chat on the Kony campaign on Tuesday, March 13, from 1-2ET.