After the storm, we need to keep talking about Kony

In the backlash against Kony 2012 a real discussion of what the international community can and should do has been lost. Despite the bias against intervention there is still a responsibility to protect.

Jasmine-Kim Westendorf
26 March 2012

In the past three weeks, more than 85 million people have watched the now famous Kony 2012 video made by US NGO Invisible Children. The media has been awash with negative responses to the film: critiques of Invisible Children’s motives, outcry that it does not reflect the complexities of the Northern Ugandan conflict, anger that it calls for US military engagement in a foreign country, indignation at the perceived ‘White Saviour’ response, jealous territorialism by those who’ve been working in the area for years and resent the language of ‘invisibility’ used, and warnings about the unreflexive ‘clictivism’ of the millions on Facebook who’ve ‘liked’ the film.  

What has been lost in this backlash is a real discussion of the devastating role the LRA continues to play in the conflicts across Central Africa, and the important role the international community can and should play in responding to the militia.  This is not to defend the video against the many valid criticisms of its message, motives and format, but to highlight some of the critical discussions we risk obscuring if we don’t look beyond those criticisms, particularly as the debate moves slowly towards the question of ‘what next,’ now that the initial media storm is passing.

There are two problematic trends in the criticism that haven't received the consideration they deserve.  Firstly, the argument that the video doesn’t accurately describe the current reality of the LRA’s actions and the threat it poses to Northern Uganda, and as such should be discredited, and secondly, the tendency to dismiss any talk of foreign intervention into the conflict as neo-colonial, or neo-imperial.

While proponents of the first argument are right to point out that the film doesn’t accurately portray the current situation in Northern Uganda, which is plagued more by underdevelopment as a consequence of Ugandan President Museveni’s neglect of the region than by LRA attacks, it fails to capture the reality of the devastation and terror the LRA continues to visit upon communities in Central Africa, using the same techniques of brutalisation and mutilation earlier deployed against the Acholi in Northern Uganda. 

When the last peace process failed in 2006, largely because of the government’s inability to offer an amnesty for Kony due to his ICC indictment, Kony withdrew his forces to the relative safety of the jungle region spanning  the Southern Sudan, the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic.  Since then, the LRA has become a rogue actor in a region already afflicted by numerous violent civil wars, complicating the conflict dynamics in all of the countries it moves through, and destabilising already fragile peace consolidation processes, such as that in the newly established South Sudan. 

Two weeks ago, thousands fled a spate of LRA attacks in the Orientale province of north-eastern DRC, adding to the 320,000 already displaced since 2008. 30,000 of these have fled into the CAR and South Sudan, countries themselves struggling to establish peace after decades of civil war, compounding pressure for scarce resources, and potentially sparking new conflicts.  Similarly, LRA attacks in South Sudan have resulted in countless deaths, the abduction of many children, and the displacement of 68,000 South Sudanese in 2009 alone, which is a significant factor contributing to the ongoing insecurity in the country.

Sure, as one criticism of the Kony 2012 campaign goes, these numbers pale in comparison with the numbers of deaths in the region due to malaria and other preventable diseases, but let’s not diminish the fact that death and displacement at this scale, and as a result of the violence of a rag tag group of child soldiers led by a brutal warlord, represents not only a significant military threat, but an enormous humanitarian concern in an already suffering region.

This brings us to the second theme that pervades much of the criticism of the Kony 2012 campaign, which dismisses the calls for international involvement in catching Kony as neo-colonialism motivated either by the ‘White Saviour’ complex, or the desire to shore up the newly discovered oil reserves in Uganda.

The disastrous interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have meant that any talk of military intervention into foreign countries is quickly labelled neo-colonial and economically motivated, and the bias sits firmly against any such intervention. 

The main problem with this argument is that it disallows, or rejects discussion about intervention in any context.  If the bias is always against intervention, we risk undermining years of collaborative international efforts that have developed important international norms and laws around human rights, humanitarianism, and the laws of war. 

Joseph Kony has been indicted by the ICC on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.  That indictment is not a form of Western imperialism of ‘our values’ onto other countries, but based on standards agreed to internationally, including by the many African states who are signatories to the ICC statute.  It was to respond to cases like this, of the massive brutalisation of entire populations, that those norms were developed, and their application should not be undermined by the constant rehearsing of old lines about colonialism.

While it is clearly important to consider charges of neo-colonialism and economic motivations for intervention, it is equally pertinent to question their validity in each context, and to consider the potential positive outcomes of intervention.  In this case, no one is suggesting a full scale military intervention to combat the LRA would be appropriate or realistic, but support for local or regional efforts to capture Kony and dismantle his forces are another thing entirely, and Western militaries can play important roles in this.  Although the international community doesn’t have a perfect record on such interventions, we have to recognise that they are new and complex operations, and that when done well, they can have very positive effects on peacebuilding. 

In this context, given the relative weakness of the LRA in comparison to Western forces, which have the technological wherewithal to track them in the jungle and capture Kony and his top commanders, a small, well targeted mission, such as the 100 US military advisors already deployed to support the Ugandan army’s efforts to capture Kony, is not only feasible, but has the potential to be highly effective. Indeed, the existing mission has already achieved something that years of negotiations failed to: Kony and the LRA are letting their ‘wives’ and captured children go, as they prevent the militia from moving as fast as necessary through the jungle to keep ahead of the US-supported forces pursuing them. Missions like this are unlikely to cause the same problems as the much larger scale of interventions like in the Balkans, and also unlikely to lead to any massive injection of military resources into armies like Uganda’s, which itself has a concerning human rights record.

Some have argued that the LRA is fundamentally a Ugandan problem that requires a Ugandan solution, and that the international community should, in effect, resist the ‘White Saviour’ imperative, and stay out of it. Any real assessment of the role the LRA plays today makes clear that this is not the case.  The LRA is no longer fighting a politically motivated conflict against the government of Uganda, but has morphed into a militia motivated by a circular logic of violence for its own sake, rather than for political end-goals.

The LRA has become a regional problem, and, in that it is contributing not only to regional conflict processes but to a growing humanitarian crisis, it is also an international problem.  After the genocides in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, the world said ‘never again’ would we stand idly by while innocent people’s lives are lost in violence that we have the capacity to stop.  In recent years, former head of the International Crisis Group, Gareth Evans, has been at the forefront of conceptualising and advocating the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine: the idea that when large numbers of people are being killed as a result of their government’s complicity, or unwillingness to protect them, the responsibility to protect them falls to the international community.  This, combined with the conviction about the inherent value of human life, which is the basis of international human rights and humanitarian law, militates against simply rejecting the possibility of international intervention into foreign conflicts because of charge of potential neo-colonialism. 

Just removing Kony from the mix in Central Africa, as the Invisible Children campaign advocates, will not solve the problems and conflicts that dominate the region.  But it would likely result in the collapse of the LRA as a military threat, and in doing so, would remove one major actor from the busy stage of warlords and warriors in Central Africa.  This might only be only a first step in supporting the region to move towards peace, and would have to be followed with complex peace-building, security-building, reconciliation and justice processes, but it would nonetheless be an important step in the quest for peace in Central Africa. 

This fact should not be forgotten in the criticisms of the Kony 2012 campaign, or in the misguided deployment of allegations of neo-colonialism and the bias against intervention in all cases.  The international community can support the region to move towards peace, and, in the light of the devastating human suffering as a result of conflict that has characterised the region since decolonisation, the international community has a responsibility to do so. 

This doesn’t mean that supporting the Kony 2012 campaign is the right thing to do, but it also doesn’t mean that dismissing the issues it raises is any more right.  As an international community, the imperative is on us to keep discussing these issues, and keep considering how we might engage with them to support moves towards peace.  Thousands of lives and livelihoods in Central Africa depend on us doing so.

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