Solving War Crimes With Wristbands: The Arrogance of 'Kony 2012'

A viral video by a controversial group claims to fix Central African violence with awareness, but such misguided campaigns can do more harm than good.

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Members of Invisible Children pose with soldiers from the Sudan People's Liberation Army near the Congo-Sudan border in 2008 / Courtesy Glenna Gordon

Have you heard? Joseph Kony, brutal warlord and International Criminal Court indictee, is going to be famous like George Clooney. The reason is Kony 2012, a 30 minute film by the advocacy organization Invisible Children, which has gone viral in the 72 hours since its release, garnering over 38.6 million views on Youtube and Vimeo. It has been retweeted by everyone from Justin Bieber to Oprah, and shared on Facebook by seemingly everyone under the age of 25.

The video opens with a perplexing sequence of home movies. A happy couple film their baby's delivery by Caesarean, and he grows into a healthy, smiling toddler. Then the scene cuts to Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) leader Joseph Kony in Central Africa, violently preying upon poor villagers. Now we discover the reason for the five minutes we just spent with this bubbly blond child in Los Angeles. He serves as a contrast for the crying children of northern Uganda, who have been victimized by Kony. (Never mind the fact that the LRA left Uganda years ago.)

The movie swirls us through a quickie history of the LRA, a rebel group that terrorized vulnerable civilian populations in northern Uganda for nearly twenty years before moving into the borderlands of South Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Central African Republic. It's (justifiably) heavy on the vilification of Kony, but light on any account of the complex political dynamics that sparked the conflict or have contributed to the LRA's longevity. Instead, we are given a facile explanation for Kony's decades-long reign of terror: Not enough Americans care.

Invisible Children has turned the myopic worldview of the adolescent -- "if I don't know about it, then it doesn't exist, but if I care about it, then it is the most important thing in the world" -- into a foreign policy prescription. The "invisible children" of the group's name were the children of northern Uganda forcibly recruited by the LRA. In the group's narrative, these children were "invisible" until American students took notice of them.

Awareness of their plight achieved, child soldiers are now visible to the naked American eye. And in fact, several months ago, President Obama sent 100 military advisors to Uganda to assist in the effort to track down Kony. But according to Invisible Children, these troops may be recalled unless the college students of America raise yet more awareness. The new video instructs its audience to put up posters, slap on stickers, and court celebrities' favor until Kony is "as famous as George Clooney." At that moment, sufficient awareness will have been achieved, and Kony will be magically shipped off to the International Criminal Court to await trial.

This awareness-based approach to atrocity strikes many people as worthwhile. As Samantha Power laid out in brutal detail in her book A Problem From Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, the United States has repeatedly failed to intervene to stop genocide and crimes against humanity because of our leaders' belief that public opinion would not support such a decision. In theory, awareness campaigns should remedy that problem. In reality, they have not -and may have even exacerbated it. 

The problem is that these campaigns mobilize generalized concern -- a demand to do something. That isn't enough to counterbalance the costs of interventions, because Americans' heartlessness or apathy was never the biggest problem. Taking tough action against groups, like the LRA, that are willing to commit mass atrocities will inevitably turn messy. Soldiers will be killed, sometimes horribly. (Think Somalia.) Military advice and training to the local forces attempting to suppress atrocities can have terrible unforeseen consequences. Consider the hundreds of victims of the LRA's 2008 "Christmas Massacre," their murderous response to a failed, U.S.-supported attack by Ugandan and Congolese government forces. International Criminal Court investigations often prompt their targets to step up attacks on civilians and aid workers, in an attempt to gain leverage with the court. (Both Kony and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir have tried that method.)  

Presented by

Kate Cronin-Furman & Amanda Taub

Kate Cronin-Furman is a lawyer and a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University. Amanda Taub is a lawyer who teaches international law and human rights at Fordham University. They write regularly at WrongingRights.

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