Tonight, newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power will give the keynote address at Invisible Children’s Fourth Estate Summit. The summit is the second or third* such conference hosted by IC to bring together young leaders to learn more about the LRA conflict in particular, but also to learn about and discuss activism, development, justice, and trendy ways to change lives. The keynote will be Power’s first speech since assuming the role of ambassador to the UN.
Some people are a little surprised that this will be Power’s first event. But, regardless of whether it was booked before or after her nomination, her attendance at the conference representing the government is very appropriate. Her book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide has been cited by a lot of activists as a call to action and a blueprint for what the U.S. government’s role in preventing and responding to mass atrocities should look like. In the book, citing how the U.S. failed to intervene when genocide occurred in the past, Power advocates for increased humanitarian intervention through engaged diplomatic efforts and military action.
While her call for intervention is not without criticism, Power’s advocacy for U.S. involvement in stemming and preventing mass atrocities has been central to groups like Invisible Children, Enough, and Save Darfur, groups that have led grassroots movements to bring attention to and take action to stop human rights abuses. In addition to making films about the LRA and running education, employment, and sanitation programs in Uganda, IC is also behind the years-long advocacy push for U.S. action to bring leaders of the LRA to justice. This is why it’s no surprise that Invisible Children would want Samantha Power to speak at their summit.
But why would the U.S. Mission to the UN send its highest official to the conference, and for her first official speech at that? Again, while this might seem surprising at first, it actually makes all sorts of sense. Invisible Children has been the central figure in the campaign to get the U.S. government to take action on the LRA conflict. There are several groups trying to shed light on the LRA’s actions, but IC has pretty much been in the driver’s seat of the effort to urge U.S. action since around 2007 or 2009. The May 2010 passage of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act was the most widely co-sponsored Africa-related bill in modern U.S. legislative history. And in October of 2011 President Obama sent 100 military advisers to help track down Kony.
This is all to say that Invisible Children is a powerful player in helping advocate for policy decisions. But IC has also played into the broader U.S. policy in the region. President Museveni of Uganda has been a pretty bad leader recently, but the War on Terror gave both Presidents Bush and Obama reason to lend him financial support and military assistance as part of the trend in which we support autocrats for being tough on terrorists. Uganda is one of the main contributors to the peacekeeping mission in Somalia, where they are fighting al Shabaab. Museveni has been a long-time opponent of Sudan’s Omar al Bashir. And this is on top of Museveni’s fight against the LRA, whom were labeled terrorists by both the U.S. and Ugandan governments in the early 2000s. Because of all of this, Museveni needs U.S. support – rigged elections and brutal crackdowns on protests be damned. And so, by mustering a grassroots movement of thousands of millenials to call for the U.S. to commit to helping stop the LRA, IC helps the Obama administration explain why Museveni deserves millions of dollars of military aid.
And that brings us to today, when an advocate of U.S. humanitarian intervention and a person who has been in the center of Obama’s foreign policy decision-making will speak to 1500 youth that helped call for intervention in central Africa that supported an autocrat. There are good and bad things that arise from such parallel work between an advocacy group and the government, from effectively getting aid money to development agencies and raising awareness of the effects of displacement to further militarizing an already dangerous region. But, as IC’s activism in the U.S. and their protection programs in DRC and CAR continue to support and shape U.S. policy, the relationship between the two will remain like that.
* This is the second Fourth Estate conference – the first was in 2011. I attended a conference in 2007 that was a sort of precursor to Fourth Estate, in which 200 IC supporters also learned about the LRA, discussed activism, justice, world-changing, etc.
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Glad to be reading your thoughts Scott. The influence of the US-Ugandan relationship on the entrenchment of the M7 regime is the most difficult question for me that arises out of our work. Two things have convinced us that the potential tradeoffs of supporting the UPDF’s efforts to pursue the LRA are worth making in present circumstances.
One, it is obviously “working” in that violence is being reduced dramatically and any fair minded observer has to credit Ugandan military efforts as being one key piece of why. Alternatives to the Ugandans in this regard are almost nonexistent, or so unlikely as to not merit mention.
Second, the relationship hinges on counter-terror collaboration, not the LRA mission. The latter is possible only because of the former. Ending the latter would not likely alter the arc of the relationship. If that dynamic were to change, and our advocacy for cooperation on the LRA were to be a more prominent USG justification for that relationship, we would view this tradeoff much differently.
Thanks for the feedback, Michael. I’m glad Resolve weighs these same issues carefully, and I think you’re right that anti-terrorism trumps LRA in terms of the US-Ugandan relationship. To your first point, though, I’m wondering: while UPDF may be partially responsible for reducing violence, are they also responsible for increasing defections? A majority of recent defections have been in DRC, where UPDF haven’t been active. Would it be possible to bring about more returns without scaling up military action?
Broadly speaking, the LRA are lying low and setting up camp right now (from what I understand). Since attempting escape is a greater risk than remaining with the LRA under those circumstances, there is a need to push or pull likely defectors out, either by making staying with the LRA less appealing (through military force) or by making escaping more appealing (through defection messaging). One person at IC said that there needs to be a balance of both to effect an increase in defections. I guess I’m wondering if it’s possible to bring more LRA home without sending soldiers in and thus reducing potential injuries to abductees and reducing militarization in the area.
I know defection messaging is increasing this fall, but I assume military action won’t be changing from the current standstill – at least not in DRC. Could this be effective? You all have more experience and information on these processes than me, so I’m curious how likely a mostly-messaging, minimal-military approach would work.
Hi Scott — I think you answered your own question, that there needs to be a balance of both. Couple quick thoughts to add to the mix:
The research we (and Ledio/Phil) have done suggests a somewhat complex — but nonetheless important — relationship between military pressure and defection. The military pursuit has forced the LRA to remain moving around constantly (at least most groups in CAR/Sudan), making life difficult and creating opportunities for escape. Though actual military clashes are rare, the pressure caused by pursuit is still a big factor.
Second, UPDF/US ops have also disrupted Kony’s apparatus for command and control. They have forced the LRA to limit the use of electronic comms, and by deploying UPDF/US bases right along the path of movement between CAR/Sudan-based LRA groups and DRC-based groups, caused many LRA groups (particularly in DRC) to operate independent of direction from Kony for months and even years at a time. This has led to deterioration of morale and been a big contributing factor to defections, esp in DRC (so even though mil ops are almost nonexistent in DRC, the success of military efforts in preventing those groups from establishing strong ties to groups in neighboring areas has nonetheless been very important).
Absent these pressures, I’m sure we could still have some success with defections, but over time — as Kony would reconsolidate command/control and the LRA would become aware that they are no longer being chased — the effect would diminish dramatically. That’s what we need to avoid.
There actually is some serious movement underway to improve the capacity to conduct ops in DRC, led in large part by the US, but I think this is realistically aimed at creating just a modicum of pressure and intel that can be exploited if/when more senior commanders are captured or killed to get those groups out. We all know the limitations of FARDC etc.
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