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.

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.)

The t-shirts, posters, and wristbands of awareness campaigns like Invisible Children's do not mention that death and failure often lie along the road to permanent solutions, nor that the simplest "solutions" are often the worst. (In fairness, you try fitting that on a bracelet.) Instead, they shift the goal from complicated and messy efforts at political resolution to something more palatable and less controversial: ever more awareness.

By making it an end in and of itself, awareness stands in for, and maybe even displaces, specific solutions to these very complicated problems. Campaigns that focus on bracelets and social media absorb resources that could go toward more effective advocacy, and take up rhetorical space that could be used to develop more effective advocacy. How do we go from raising awareness about LRA violence to actually stopping it? What's the mechanism of transforming YouTube page views into a mediated political settlement? For all the excitement around awareness as an end in itself, one could be forgiven for forming the impression that there might be a "Stop Atrocity" button blanketed in dust in the basement of the White House, awaiting the moment when the tide of awareness reaches the Oval Office.

If only there were. Because Americans are, by and large, pretty aware. In addition to the millions who have now watched Kony 2012, organizations like the Enough Project, Amnesty International, and STAND mobilize countless more. A Google News search of 2011 archives produces thousands of articles about child soldiers in Africa, rape in the Eastern DRC, and ongoing violence in Darfur.

Treating awareness as a goal in and of itself risks compassion fatigue -- most people only have so much time and energy to devote to far-away causes -- and ultimately squanders political momentum that could be used to push for effective solutions. Actually stopping atrocities would require sustained effort, as well as significant dedication of time and resources that the U.S. is, at the moment, ill-prepared and unwilling to allocate. It would also require a decision on whether we are willing to risk American lives in places where we have no obvious political or economic interests, and just how much money it is appropriate to spend on humanitarian crises overseas when 3 out of 10 children in our nation's capital live at or below the poverty line. The genuine difficulty of those questions can't be eased by sharing a YouTube video or putting up posters.

Invisible Children has been the target of intense scrutiny from the international development and NGO community for spending less than one third of the funds they raise on actual programs to help LRA-affected populations. (Mia Farrow was unimpressed.) The $1,859,617 that Invisible Children spent in 2011 on travel and filmmaking last year seems high for an organization whose total expenses were $8,894,630 (which includes the cost to make all those bracelets and posters).

However, we're less concerned with the budgetary issues than with the general philosophical approach of this type of advocacy. Perhaps worst of all are the unexplored assumptions underpinning the awareness argument, which reduce people in conflict situations to two broad categories: mass-murderers like Joseph Kony and passive victims so helpless that they must wait around to be saved by a bunch of American college students with stickers. No Ugandans or other Africans are shown offering policy suggestions in the film, and it is implied that local governments were ineffective in combating the LRA simply because they didn't have enough American assistance.

None of us who actually work with populations affected by mass atrocity believe this to be a truthful or helpful representation. Even under horrific circumstances, people are endlessly resourceful, and local actors understand their needs better than outsiders. It's good that Americans want to help, but ignoring the role and authority of local leaders and activists isn't just insulting and arrogant, it neglects the people who are the most likely to come up with a solution to the conflict.

The LRA is a problem worth solving, but how to do so is a complicated question with no easy answers. Americans are right to care but we need to stop kidding ourselves that spending $30 plus shipping and handling for a Kony 2012 action kit makes us part of the solution to anything.