One week ago, the campaign group Invisible Children (IC) released the surprisingly controversial film ‘Kony 2012’. Just as I write this I notice that Microsoft Word 2010 auto-corrects the word ‘Kony’ as it does not recognize it, and I have to ‘add to dictionary’. I doubt that will happen on the next version of Word, as in one week 75 million people saw this video. ‘Everybody’ now knows who Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) is.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4MnpzG5Sqc (Kony 2012)
The Campaign’s Aim
The aim of the video and the IC campaign is threefold; 1) to raise awareness about what is happening to the civil population in Uganda, especially with regards to child-soldiers such as Jacob, 2) to make Joseph Kony famous and, 3) as a consequence of this fame, politicians will need to act in order to intervene and arrest Kony and bring him to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In the video we see how narrator Jason Russell, while in Uganda, promised Jacob that he would do everything he could to ‘stop’ Joseph Kony. To ‘stop’ Joseph Kony and the LRA is ‘the only purpose of the video’ Russell narrates.
It is evident that IC have not been campaigning for long and do not have the same expertise that characterizes many NGO’s and think tanks who have been working on this issue for decades. I think that is one of the reasons they keep it simple and use their forte, which is video editing and passion. This is probably also why IC falsely bases the premise of the video on ‘the fact’ that nobody supposedly knows who Kony is. I do not however dispute that his fame has increased substantially through IC’s work.
The main problem is that the content of the video is oversimplified. What does it mean to ‘stop’ Kony? Why is the focus only on him and the LRA, instead of on all the perpetrators of human rights violations? Why does Russell put an expiration date on the movie?
Kony 2012 is inexact and lacks nuances. It has been characterized as simple and criticized for displaying a limited level of knowledge which it again perpetuates, which again is misleading people. Others condemn the video for being patronizing to Africans and displaying Jason Russell as sort of a super hero that represents an army of westerners that will save Africa. It has also been echoed that it induces ‘slactivism’, meaning that people will ‘like’ and watch the video on social networks, but will have no long-lasting commitment to the issue.
The inaccuracy is important because it not only displays a false reality, such as outdated images, but it deceptively offers an easy-fix to a very complex problem. It has been pointed out that in order to ‘stop’ Kony one might have to confront child soldiers, which could end in an undesired massacre. This is a fundamental issue which the video overlooks by oversimplifying the problem. When child soldiers are forced to become perpetrators of crimes against humanity, it raises ethical issues which this group is not prepared to handle adequately. A related controversial aspect of their demand for Kony’s arrest is the call for a combined U.S./Ugandan intervention. Many fear this would instead lead to an ‘Osama-style’ assassination rather than an arrest and sentencing at the ICC. Moreover this would feed into suspicious political agendas. Kony 2012 furthermore portrays the Ugandan government as a rather helpless agent in the pursuit of Joseph Kony. The facts more complicated. Not only should the Ugandan government have done more in their pursuit for the LRA, but they are also guilty of recruiting child soldiers in the past. IC do not sufficiently emphasize, in the video, that Northern Uganda is much more peaceful now than it has been previously and let us remember that the LRA left Uganda in 2006. In fact, the war in Uganda ended in 2005 and is now more of a regional problem in central Africa. The video further neglects to debate the issue of the amnesty laws for former LRA members, which there is quite a bit of support for in Uganda, considering that many of the perpetrators are after all children. Kony 2012 also contains another mistake, which is the claim that Kony has no support. Sudan, represented by another person sought by the ICC, President Omar al-Bashir, is seriously suspected of having supported the LRA to distract South-Sudan. Finally, the IC have been accused of spending most of the funds they have raised for this cause on salaries, travel expenses and video editing, instead of directly on the cause. This they have to account for themselves and audits would answer the question. Here is a link to IC’s breakdown of expenses (http://www.invisiblechildren.com.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/critiques.html).
What are the Proposed Solutions?
In the video, Chief Prosecutor for the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo calls for the world’s nations to show a serious intent to arrest Kony. That would be a solid beginning and a deterrent for all those military leaders who use child soldiers and commit human rights violations. UNICEF has spoken loudly about their support for the video and its ability to place the conflict on the agenda. They do however recall that this is not about one person or one place. There are after all 250.000 child soldiers in the world, all equally important to Jacob. Their Secretary General finally points out that you cannot just ‘stop’ Kony, but you have to ‘rehabilitate and prevent’ as well. It will require action from all of us. Amnesty International has called for the arrest of Joseph Kony to be carried out in accordance with human rights standards.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has supported the calls for Kony’s arrest but argues that the following must also be offered;
§ Increased protection for civilians to prevent retaliatory attacks by the LRA
§ A program to rescue children and adults captured by the LRA
§ Rehabilitation for LRA fighters and captives who escape
§ Enhanced communication and early warning systems so civilians can report attacks and rapid assistance can be deployed
§ Better demobilization efforts to help LRA fighters who want to surrender
§ Deployment of capable forces with adequate logistical and intelligence support to apprehend the LRA’s leaders
This shows a more complicated picture of what is required to ‘stop’ Joseph Kony. It also shows that the aim itself is not only to arrest Kony, but it is to create peace, respect for human rights and re-integrate former child soldiers. There are more nuances in the Ugandan and central African reality than meets the eye in Kony 2012. Solving this issue is not an easy-fix as one might think after watching the video.
In IC’s defense I believe that awareness-raising is a value in itself, but it is also an argument for IC to be more exact. Much of the criticism is spot-on and I have no doubt that IC will have learned a lot from this experience. The group has moreover accomplished important things, such as the establishment of a radio warning system to alert the presence of the guerilla forces. IC has drawn an unparalleled attention to this issue of Kony’s arrest, which is positive. However, I think the most important thing this video will bring with it is that more people will mobilize, perhaps also in more established organizations that have been working on this issue for decades. NGO’s will also have learned a lesson as this must be the first time in history a charity organization managed to capture the attention of 75 million people in a week. It is a campaigning lesson, although the formula remains unclear. Campaigners now need to up their game. It remains to be seen whether IC now can capitalize to have a real impact and longevity. Unfortunately I doubt it, as I think they have lost much credibility. Longevity also seems problematic when Jason Russell says this video expires at the end of the year. Like UNICEF has said, this does not end with the arrest of Joseph Kony. The commitment to prevent and rehabilitate child soldiers and prevent atrocities against civilians goes further. For this to become a reality, the focus must be broadened beyond Joseph Kony.