Over the weekend I penned a lengthy recap of Friday’s panel on Kony 2012 at the New York Society for Ethical Culture that was hosted by Congo in Harlem. If you’re interested in the LRA, central Africa, or Invisible Children, it’s worth perusing. I promised to contribute something to the conversation, and this is what I ended up with:
Today I wanted to take a brief look at a particular moment of last week’s panel, when Kate Cronin-Furman gave her opening remarks. She chose to talk about the decision for Invisible Children to concentrate on the International Criminal Court, and to look at what that meant for the campaign specifically as well as the narrative of the conflict as portrayed in the video. She began by looking at the circumstances that resulted in the ICC referral and compared it to Uganda’s justice system today. She also argued that a campaign that only addressed the ICC was either “not thoughtful advocacy” or was “window dressing for an all-military approach.” She ended with the question, why are we treating a complex political situation like a law enforcement problem?
There’s lots to talk about in this discussion. We could hold a whole other panel on the ICC in Uganda (and I’d love to go to that, if any panel organizers are reading this), and there are plenty of papers and several books on just this subject. Kate touched on a number of contentious points about the ICC’s involvement in the conflict and how that involvement has been executed. I want to expand on and respond to a few of these discussion points, because a lot of what Kate said is the stuff I’ve been thinking about for a long time.
One of the things that just about everybody can agree on is that no one can agree on whether the ICC is good or bad for this conflict. The indictments for LRA leaders were unsealed in 2005, and since then a lot of things have happened. Depending on who you ask, the fear of the ICC is what brought the LRA to the peace talks in 2006 or the ICC’s warrants were what prevented the ultimate peace deal from being implemented. The ICC is either helping to foster peace or its the biggest obstacle. And there are a lot of people who have gone back and forth on this very debate. When I first got involved with Invisible Children and Resolve, there was a lot of talk about setting aside justice in favor of peace, but with the end of the peace process there seemed to be an about-face to concentrate solely on the ICC and capturing Kony.
But why the ICC? Since the referral almost ten years ago, Uganda has built up some strong institutions that could theoretically try war criminals like Joseph Kony. Indeed, as Kate suggested, trying perpetrators locally could serve to reinforce the rule of law, shore up untested instiutions, allow Ugandans to take ownership in ending the conflict, and situate justice as a part of other post-conflict transition steps like integration of rebels. But is this plausible? Two men represent one of the more neglected problems of prosecutions and amnesty in Uganda. One, Thomas Kwoyelo, was captured by the UPDF in 2009; the other, Caesar Achellam, was recently captured (or maybe surrendered) earlier this year. Both clearly qualify for amnesty (Kwoyelo’s release has been court-ordered (JiC has excellent trial coverage), and there is reason to believe Achellam wasn’t captured but actually surrendered, which should guarantee instant amnesty) but both remain in jail. The Ugandan courts, for their part, have demonstrated tremendous independence in ruling that Kwoyelo should be released, but the Director of Public Prosecutions has unilaterally decided that that isn’t going to happen. This throws a lot of doubt into a justice system with insufficient checks and balances and calls into question whether the benefits of trying perpetrators locally would outweigh the potential miscarriage of justice.
But even when you consider all of this, is it right to focus so exclusviely on the ICC? Looking at his history, it seems all but certain that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is using the ICC as a pretense for sending soldiers maurauding across central Africa. He has a record of exploiting the LRA crisis to keep northern opposition groups at bay, mask the structural inequalities of the country, and garner military and financial support for an increasingly oppressive government. The decision for Invisible Children’s campaign to look exclusively at the military-judicial option is worrying. It is true that Invisible Children has programs on the ground in Uganda and the DRC that are separate from the ICC. Scholarships and employment opportunities in Uganda and a rehabilitation center in the DRC have a lot to offer for post-conflict recovery. Early warning networks and come-home messaging across LRA-affected regions have a lot to contribute to protecting civilians and encouraging defections.
But the fact remains that Kony 2012 – the campaign – is centered on one ultimate goal: capturing Kony. And it seems clear to me that this is a product of American thinking. When most Americans hear of something terrible happening in the world, the first thought is almost always “why are we letting that happen?” or “what can we do to stop it?” It’s a byproduct of living in a country where you’re told you can make a difference in your government, coupled with that government happening to have the biggest military and a lot of influence. Our history is fraught with America trying to fix all the problems, many times when there wasn’t even a real problem. All too often, Americans jump straight to the military intervention option, be it the LRA or Libya or Syria. Using the ICC to capture Kony is a euphemism for sending soldiers into the bush to hunt down a guy surrounded by conscripted civilians. Proper training and better equipment could help the soldiers minimize casualties when the LRA retaliate, and it could hasten Kony’s capture, but the mission still puts child soldiers in danger – and they are the ones most victimized by Kony. As Amanda Taub pointed out in her opening statement, we don’t bear the burden if this plan goes awry – child soldiers in the LRA and civilians in the Congo and Central African Republic do. We need to be clear about this when we’re making decisions and understand the risks involved in a military-judicial approach.
Which brings us to the final question: why is this situation being looked at only through the lens of law enforcement? The inequalities in Uganda that allowed the LRA to form in the first place is still there, and the lack of infrastructure in eastern DRC and CAR is prime territory for a rebel group on the lam. Focusing the films on these problems would help to allievate the seeming bias in IC’s media as well as create a better informed audience of advocates. And it can be done. When I was teaching high school students we managed to talk about infrastructure in engaging ways (no joke) and many Ugandans are quick to point out problems of their country’s north-south divide. These concepts are either absent from IC’s more recent films (Museveni’s wrongdoings) or tacked on as a part of IC’s “what we’re doing in the region” segment at the end. If building up infrastructure and giving victims channels to improve their lives are central to IC’s mission (and I believe they are), they need to be central to their films. These concepts need to move into the spotlight, or Invisible Children will continue to appear like Kate described them: not thoughtful advocacy or a cover for a military approach.