Wednesday, 7 March 2012
PHONY 2012: 9 Reasons Not To Support This Manipulative Meme-Du-Jour
By the time you read this post you with no doubt have already seen the latest viral video phenomenon, KONY 2012. In case you've missed it, the video is part of a human rights campaign gone that has ratcheted up millions of YouTube hits, trended like wildfire over Twitter and has drawn thousands to to its Facebook page
The subject of Jason Russell's now-viral film is Joseph Kony, the notorious Ugandan warlord and leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) who has been indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. Established in 1986, the LRA has carried out a violent bush war in the northern part of the country with the stated aim of overthrowing the government and establishing a theocratic state centred on the Ten Commandments.
That Kony is a reprehensible figure is not in any doubt. Since the start of this armed conflict, the LRA is accused of abducting some 66,000 children to serve as child soldiers (or sexual slaves) and has displaced over 2,000,000 people in northern Uganda as well as in neighbouring South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Since 2005, Kony has been indicted with no less than 12 counts of crimes against humanity, including murder, enslavement, sexual enslavement, and rape, with a further 21 charges of war crimes include murder, cruel treatment of civilians, intentionally directing an attack against a civilian population, pillaging, inducing rape, and forced enlisting of children into the rebel ranks.
Yes, there's no doubt that Kony is a bad man. Nevertheless, this viral campaign, which pledged to bring this wanted war criminal to justice by the end of this year, is a deeply problematic affair. Admittedly, I was taken in for about the first ten minutes, although I found the transparent manipulativeness of it to be grating from the start. But by the end, I was deeply suspicious of this campaign and did some further digging. The following riposte on the always irreverent blog Jezebel offers a less than flattering perspective on the tactics of the campaign's mother organization, Invisible Children. Here, however, I will focus on the cause in question.
My sister, Valerie, is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Northwestern University in Illinois who specialized in post-conflict resolution and reconciliation in Africa - in places ranging from Uganda to Sierra Leone to South Africa. As something of an expert on the LRA conflict, she kindly filled me in on the conflict, which, admittedly, I knew very little about 24 hours ago.
I'm not going to get into how transparently manipulative the filmmaker's promise to his young son that he would capture Kony by the end of the year is, or, for that matter, the fact that Rush Limbaugh went on record defending the LRA last year when Obama committed 100 special forces troops to the region to help the Ugandan army pursue Kony and his thugs. But here here are a nine facts to consider before you leap onto this online bandwagon:
1) There's nothing 'new' or 'invisible' about this conflict. Joseph Kony has been at or near the top of the International Criminal Court's most wanted list for the better part of a decade, and anyone with any knowledge of African political affairs of the last two decades is already well aware of him.
2) The footage of Kony and the LRA used in this video is extremely dated, mostly at least a decade old.
3) The internally displaced people (IDP) situation in northern Uganda has been essentially over since the Ugandan military pushed the LRA out of the country and into the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo and CAR. Kony himself is believed to be in the CAR currently, not in Uganda.
4) As Valerie eloquently put it, awareness is not the problem. The problem is FINDING him. And to suggest that an arbitrary date such as the end of 2012 is feasible for tracking down and capturing this fugitive is absolutely ludicrous. It took the US military nearly a decade to find Osama bin Laden following the US overthrow of the Taliban. It took even longer for the Serbian special police to capture Ratko Mladić, the former Bosnian Serb commander and the infamous 'Butcher of Srebenica', in a country far smaller than either of the places where Joseph Kony is likely hiding.
On that note, it is worth noting that Uganda's military, a far more professional and well equipped outfit than it was in the 1980s, has been searching for Kony for years, and that Uganda's northern neighbours (South Sudan, the DRC and the CAR) are among the world's most dysfunctional and lawless countries, making finding Kony at least as daunting a task as finding Osama in the anarchic mountainous region spanning the Afghan-Pakistan border was.
5) Contrary to what this video suggests, Kony and the LRA pose no existential threat to the people of Uganda at present. The LRA has been expelled from the country and Uganda is today one of the more stable and economically prosperous countries in the region. Granted, Uganda does have lingering human rights issues, not the least of which being President Museveni's constitutional tinkerings and repression against political opponents, but as we've seen in Russia lately, this is hardly a strictly African problem. The picture painted of Uganda as a lawless basket case of a country was accurate 30 years ago when the country was still recovering from the murderous regime of Idi Amin, but it's in no way reflective of the current state of affairs there.
6) The video is completely black and white and makes no mention of the Ugandan army's own atrocities, both within its own borders and in its neighbouring countries. A Human Rights Watch report from 2005 noted that "The Ugandan armed forces have failed to prosecute or otherwise meaningfully discipline soldiers and their officers responsible for abuses in the north." This, if anything, is the untold story of the LRA conflict - not Kony's atrocities.
7) The video states that Kony and his forces have no ideology other than his own desire to consolidate power. In fact, the conflict has deep roots in ethnic strife. Kony's own Acholi people briefly enjoyed a privileged position in Uganda under the rule of President Tito Okello, and the conflict began following his ouster by current president Yoweri Museveni. As such, the LRA enjoyed early support from Kony's fellow Acholi, a long marginalized ethnic minority in Uganda.
8) Perhaps most troublingly, the video seems to call for US military intervention in Uganda to locate and capture Joseph Kony. Given how successful such intervention has been in Afghanistan and Iraq, do we really think this is a good course of action in what has been a chronically unstable part of the world for decades? Moreover, so many of the problems that have bedevilled this region have resulted from foreign armed incursions across borders, not the least of which being the enduring tragedy of the eastern DRC, where soldiers from neighbouring countries have taken rape as a weapon of war to previously unheard of levels.
In fact, President Obama did commit US troops to the region to assist the Ugandan army in tracking down Kony in this ever-restive region. But as we saw in Afghanistan, no number of troops in a region like this guarantees quick results in hunting down wanted fugitives - especially when they have friends and influence among cross-border co-ethnics.
9) There are other conflicts in the world that strike me as more immediate than this one. Joseph Kony is an exiled and marginalized figure with little remaining influence. Why is Mr. Russell not, instead, campaigning for the capture and indictment of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad? Why is he not focusing his attention on tyrants such as Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang or even Museveni himself, whose most recent 'election' was marred by charges of voter intimidation and violence? I'm only asking.
In sum, this viral campaign strikes me of having all the hallmarks of 'slacktivism' - wherein an international cause celebre is embraced in a brief frenzy of online activity, which is all-too-quickly abandoned. Pursuing war criminals is a wholly admirable goal, but one that takes incredible longstanding resolve. The late Simon Wiesenthal devoted a lifetime to hunting down Holocaust perpetrators, and the organization he founded is still in hot pursuit of the remaining Nazi war criminals believed to still be alive. Bringing Joseph Kony to justice is no less of an undertaking.
In the meantime, if you want to help people who have suffered human rights abuses, get involved with Amnesty International. Or volunteer at your local refugee centre. The Mennonite Centre for Newcomers here in Edmonton is always looking for volunteers. And helping out refugees here in Canada does indeed pay off. The latest issue of Alberta Views featured a very uplifting story about former refugees from South Sudan who came to Alberta - only to eventually return to their native country following its declaration of independence in May 2011, bringing with them the skills and expertise that this painfully poor and vulnerable young country will need in order to survive and grow its economy.
There are so many better ways of helping further the cause of human rights than to support temporary online crazes. Far be it for me to pooh-pooh people's wholly laudable disgust vis-a-vis despicable figures like Joseph Kony and their desire to do good. I just wish people would be a little more questioning of what they see online - and do their homework.