The Virality of Atrocity: Reflections on the Campaign to Stop Kony

The past few days have seen an incredible and exuberant reaction to Invisible Children’s wide-ranging social media campaign, aimed at garnering support and awareness for the end goal of capturing Joseph Kony, the unquestionably brutal and vicious head of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The video and the world’s reaction has thrilled, inspired, motivated, saddened, bewildered, stupefied, disappointed, and even enraged millions across the globe, catalyzing heated debates and raising numerous questions about the validity, intentions, and finance of the charity and its respective campaign. Much has been said already, but here are a few brief reflections on the discussions of the last few days:

To begin to doubt the importance of the cause is to already lose one’s own humanity; to rationally scrutinize the organization that advocates the cause is but an exercise of vital critical thought. Probing mean-spiritedly for faults against an established foundation with clearly well-intentioned and principled supporters is both egocentric and hollow; questioning constructively whether the exactitudes of their approach are most compatible with the realities of the situation is not only desirable, but necessary in any situation of social advocacy and aid. As Mahatma Gandhi once wrote, “They say, ‘means are, after all, means’. I would say, ‘means are, after all, everything’. As the means so the end.” The approach we take will reflect firmly on the outcomes we desire. As Ugandan activist Solome Lemma stresses, “we need approaches that are strategic and respectful of the local reality, build on the action and desires of local activists and organizers, and act as partners and allies, not owners and drivers.” Invisible Children have done a fantastic and commendable job in advocating for the rights and amplifying the voices of northern Ugandans, shedding light on a brutal conflict and providing much-needed and tangible benefits to victims and survivors of LRA brutality; however, much of the critique provided by African journalists and bloggers stems from the message of the video itself. For them, as Lemma elucidates, the narrative of Invisible Children on Uganda is “one that paints the people as victims, lacking agency, voice, will, or power” , calling on an “external cadre of American students to liberate them by removing the bad guy who is causing their suffering.” The most dangerous thing about stereotypes is not only that they wrong, but that they are incomplete. The people we are striving to assist are not an inchoate, impotent mass of victims; if anything they are valiant and inspiring. As Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie so wonderfully put it: “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.” As Western do-gooders, striving to appease our conscience and guilt we have too often out-muscled the voice of those we are trying to help, disrupting their agency and role in determining their own fate; if we truly want to “shape human history” as the supporters of Kony 2012 intend to, then we can begin by lending our ears and support to the targets of our aid – they are the “bunch of littles [that] can make a big difference.” Moreover, not only can they make a difference, but they are already doing so; crucial and meaningful work has been done by groups on the ground such as Art for Children Uganda, Friends of Orphans, Children Chance International, and the Women of Kireka. We must learn from past experience; we have seen the IC approach and its well-intentioned reaction play out recurringly, from Ethiopia in the 1980s, Somalia in the 2000s, to Darfur in the last decade. We must rob history of its uncanny knack of repeating itself.

Another important reflection should lie in our own role as citizens.  Canadian social activist Naomi Klein noted: “how about arresting some U.S war criminals? We know where they live, and they are already famous.” In many ways she is right. Just as moral impulses drive us to seek justice in places most distant of our actuality, we must also look for it at home, where our ignorance is most consequential. Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court who features in numerous instances in the film, mentioned in an interview with Gethin Chamberlain that he was “willing to launch an inquiry and could envisage a scenario in which the Prime Minister and American President George W Bush could one day face charges at The Hague.” Former chief prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials Benjamin Ferencz has called the invasion of Iraq a ‘supreme crime against humanity, an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign nation”, a “clear breach of law”; Nobel Prize nominee Michael Haas has meticulously documented and presented the evidence the liability of the Bush Administration for 269 war crimes. Well established criminals such as Luis Posada Carriles, Orlando Bosch Avila and Rifaat Ali al-Assad (otherwise known as the “Butcher of Hama”) are able to enjoy freedom and normalized impunity living in Miami and Mayfair, whilst we voice our desire for moral ruthlessness in apprehending criminals abroad.  British and American government officials such as John Negroponte, John Bolton, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Condoleeza Rice, Henry Kissinger, Robert McNamara, Jack Straw, Robert Gates and General Sir Mike Jackson have all faced accusations of international war crime; yes, they may not be associated with the systematic abduction and militarization of tens of thousands of children, but that does not absolve them from having to face their charges in a court of law. Public advocacy campaigns to bring these figures to justice have merited little attention in the past; we must be as boisterous and fervent in our preoccupation with the evils of thugs abroad, as with the war criminals in our vicinity; as journalist Andy Stepanian articulates, the commotion surrounding Kony gives us an opportunity to spark a profound “conversation about why we selectively fight some battles and grow to accept other injustices as commonplace.”

Invisible Children are completely right to demand an end to impunity, but this demand should be ubiquitous; the basis of moral consistency consists in applying the principles and standards we apply to others to ourselves. When asked if he would appoint a Special Prosecutor to investigate the “gravest crimes of the Bush administration”, President Barack Obama, a high-profile supporter of Invisible Children, asserted that “although nobody is above the law”, “we need to look forward, as opposed to looking backwards.” Civil rights lawyer Glenn Greenwald notes, as evidenced by these pronouncements, that American political culture has essentially “decided that our highest political officials are free to break the law without consequences”, with Obama continuing the “evisceration of the rule of law for political elites”, enabling figures “like Dick Cheney [to] know they can commit crimes with total immunity (…)”. By giving this blanked immunity to everyone and anyone who ordered, authorized, destroyed evidence of, or committed torture and other criminal acts, shielding them from both prosecution and investigation, the Obama investigation has done more to cement a culture of impunity rather than repel it. In addition, although he may pay lip-service to the plight of child soldiers, for the last two consecutive years, President Barack Obama has decided to “waive almost all the legally mandated penalties for countries that use child soldiers and provide those countries U.S military assistance”, to quote Foreign Affairs. In 2008, the Child Soldiers Protection Act was signed by President Bush, in order to “encourage countries to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate child soldiers by restricting security aid to those countries that employ children in their security forces.” In 2010, the Obama adminstration waived restrictions on security assistance to Chad, the DRC, Sudan and Yemen, under the justification that these countries required more time to remove child soldiers from their security forces, and in the case of Yemen, that “it would have the potential to jeopardize the Yemeni government’s capability to conduct special operations and counter-terrorism missions.” Such restrictions were highly criticised by the human rights community and dissenting politicians. Congressman Jeff Fortenberry claimed that “President Obama’s decision today to provide taxpayer funded military assistance to countries that use children as soldiers is an assault on human dignity,” whilst Jo Becker, child rights advocate at Human Rights Watch opined, “the Obama administration has been unwilling to make even small cuts to military assistance to governments exploiting children as soldiers (…) children are paying the price for its poor leadership.”

We must also recall another fundamental fact: Invisible Children seek to bring Joseph Kony to justice at the International Criminal Court, a permanent tribunal which prosecutes genocides, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and the crime of aggression, boasting 120 states which are states parties to the statute of the Court. However, there is one glaring omission: the United States, which is not a member of the ICC; although the Obama administration has increasingly cooperated in recent years with the court, especially regarding prosecution of leaders of the LRA, there is no intention by the American government to rejoin the Rome Statute or submit the ICC treaty to Senate ratification. Such exemption from international law is no novel phenomenon. In 1984, the International Court of Justice held that the United States had violated international law by “encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua”, through its “training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying [of] the contra forces.” The court concluded that the USA had breached “customary international law not to use force against another State, not to intervene in its affairs, not to violate its sovereignty and not to interrupt peaceful maritime commerce.” The ruling was brought to the Security Council, and as expected, despite the international community’s call for “full and immediate compliance” with the World Court ruling, Washington vetoed two UNSC resolutions affirming the judgment and calling on all states to observe and comply with international law. US State Department legal adviser Abraham Sofaer promptly explained the government’s rationale: the US must “reserve to ourselves the power to determine” how it will act and which matters fall “essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of the United States, as determined by the United States”; in other words, the international community can indict us for “terrorist acts against Nicaragua”, but ultimately it is up to us to decide whether it’s a crime or not.

We are so afraid of hypocrisy that we’d prefer to be both fully ignorant and fully forgetful, at the same time. But we must understand our ignorance, and comprehend that it will not be fought through expertly-made, refined, high-gloss videos. Viral success will not intrinsically translate into humanitarian success. The world is a complicated place, and we cannot comprehend the complexity of conflict and an appropriate response, however good its production may be, through a thirty minute video. The longevity of the LRA is not the product of Western apathy, but of an amalgam of complex, intractable factors; fundamental challenges abound in securing an existence bereft of violence and war for the children of the LRA. This is not, as much as we might wish it would be, a story of clear-cut heroes and villains; such a dichotomy is always overly simplistic and reductionist. Under the 26 year presidency of Yoweri Museveni, whose regime’s legitimacy has been implicitly bolstered by the campaign, Ugandan security agencies have been implicated in torture, illegal detention of suspects, and the violent persecution of homosexuals. The film-makers might also claim that Obama’s dispatch of 100 military advisors to the region was the first time where Washington acted not for self-interest, or “self-defense, but because it was right”; if only things were this simple. As Muchai Wa Muthatha, a Tanzanian history professor at Makerere University, elucidates, “all Africans in the know got worried late last year when America deployed 100 soldiers to Uganda, to hunt for the Lord’s Resistance Army and save President Yoweri Museveni.” “Humanitarian military interventions, democracy, good governance and accountability” are attractive curtains on Western hegemony, as “for a country as big as America to have a military intervention in yonder Uganda, there must be something special and Africans should smell a rat.” Muthatha impels us to ask important questions: Why America? Why now? “What has Museveni done to deserve special protection from the Americans, which Sudan’s Al-Bashir does not deserve? What special protection does Museveni deserve which Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe does not deserve from the MDC onslaught?” If we start asking these questions, then we can quickly and “clearly see how flimsy the US official excuse for sending 100 troops to the Great Lakes District is that there is need for stability in that region and that Kony has butchered ordinary people.” Strategic interests related to AFRICOM have been repeatedly overlooked here; as Mathutha points out, “this move is completely in line with the US plan to penetrate Africa and consolidate its military, political, and economic grip on the continent.” As the historian concludes, “we need an African not an American solution.”

The world is a complicated place, and we can easily get carried away and forget that we only see the universe through a key-hole. Getting young people excited and involved in global issues outside of their own head space is by definition commendable, but if that enthusiasm is misallocated, counter-productivity can loom as an unseen and unwanted outcome. Awareness and passion are key ingredients of successful social change; but equally so are understanding, reason, and information. The recurrence of history, from Sudan to Eritrea, has consistently shown us that Western good-willism is no guarantee for success. Intention must always be buttressed by commitment, by genuine empathy, by robust and informed comprehension. Advocacy may start with posters, T-shirts and action kits, but it can never end there.

The basic drive of any social movement is the desire to see a more beautiful world. That world will not created through nay-saying, through trite denigration, through banal and unappreciative belittlement of the words and actions of good-willing individuals; yet neither will it be created through inconsequential, uncritical and uninformed propagandism or through a aggressive, lofty reaction to criticism. Good is being done, but that does not signify it cannot be done better. Let us cover the dark night of impunity, and the dark night of ignorance. Let us avoid slipping into the tedious, unproductive dichotomy of good or evil, scam or saviours, haters or supporters, villain or hero. Invisible Children have achieved one of their primary goals: they have made Joseph Kony famous, and as Luis Ocampo noted, “they have mobilized the world.” But there is always a fine line between posturing and genuine commitment. Whether the Stop Kony campaign will provoke a wide-spread shift in the way we view and act upon criminality is for time to tell. If the incredible support for Invisible Children’s campaign can be channeled into informed, principled and reasoned action, and its popularity can serve as a significant platform for opposing and prosecuting international crime in all its forms and locations, for recognizing African strength and agency, then the initiative will merit much acclaim and esteem. But that change will never come from above, from government agencies and the boards of charities; it will be found where all empathy and thus social change begins: from within.

 March 9, 2012 / Daniel Macmillen 

7 thoughts on “The Virality of Atrocity: Reflections on the Campaign to Stop Kony

  1. Pingback: Opinion: The Virality of Atrocity | The Open Wall

  2. Pingback: Kony 1986 « What?

  3. Pingback: The Virality of Atrocity: Reflections on the Campaign to Stop Kony « Protocol

  4. Pingback: The Virality of Atrocity: Reflections on the Campaign to Stop Kony « this is rhizoma .com

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