An extraordinary thing happened on Monday night and Tuesday. Kony 2012, an online video campaign by an American NGO called Invisible Children, went viral in social media, where it was shared tens of thousands of times. The campaign draws attention to fugitive Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, calling on the public to encourage the use of military force to capture him and bring him to justice at the International Criminal Court.
As leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Mr. Kony is accused of leading a civil war against his country’s government, targeting innocent civilians and abducting thousands of children in northern Uganda. Although there is now peace there, the LRA still operates in Congo, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
It’s a good thing that people are paying attention to this issue. Atrocities in Central Africa are often ignored, and the fact that thousands of people are becoming aware of the situation presents an opportunity to help people who have suffered a great deal.
But the Kony 2012 campaign’s stated goals are simplistic at best and misleading at worst.
By focusing so much on Mr. Kony, the campaign suggests that capturing him will end the atrocities, even restore the lives of those who have suffered. But as the assassination of Osama bin Laden has shown, silencing one man doesn’t silence the movement behind him.
The notion of “justice” is also highly complicated. We recently spent three months in northern Uganda, where we spoke to hundreds of people who lost relatives and livelihoods in the war. Although many said they wanted “justice,” the meaning of justice and who should be brought to justice were divisive issues.
While many support putting Mr. Kony and others accused of war crimes on trial, others would prefer to forgive them, as long as they apologized sincerely for what they did and accepted accountability for their actions. The recent trial of Thomas Kwoyelo, a former child soldier and LRA commander, raised a tense public debate that exposed these divisions.
Those who support trials want to see more than one man punished. Uganda granted amnesty to all rebels, meaning that anyone who committed crimes – of any magnitude – as part of the rebellion are shielded from prosecution. This was done with the hope of encouraging soldiers to abandon the LRA, but now that the war is over, some Ugandans say the amnesty should be modified or even overturned.
Despite these divisions, there are at least two things that almost all northern Ugandans agree on: Government leaders should be held responsible for the victims’ suffering (government soldiers are alleged to have committed serious crimes against civilians, including rape, murder and robbery); and victims of atrocities should be compensated by those responsible (many Ugandans have been severely impoverished by the war – sent to displacement camps, denied opportunities for education, forced into destitution).
In other words, capturing Mr. Kony and bringing him to justice is only part of what has to happen in northern Uganda.
There are at least two concrete things that could be done to serve justice.
First, although the ICC has created a Trust Fund for Victims meant to channel reparations money to those affected by war crimes, it lacks capacity. We should call on our governments to offer more support.
Second, the ICC has indicted only rebel leaders, not investigating whether government officials may be guilty of similar crimes, such as forced displacement and rape. This has led many victims to call the ICC biased. With sustained international pressure, the ICC could renew its investigation into the crimes of the Ugandan government and armed forces.
Canadian followers of Kony 2012 can do more than repeat slogans. Canada played a central role in establishing the ICC, and we should urge Ottawa to help make this institution serve justice in a way that captures the complexity of the situation.
Unless we can channel this energy into a set of workable solutions that addresses the true concerns of the people affected, a great opportunity will be lost.
Salvator Cusimano and Sima Atri are fourth-year students in the Peace and Conflict Studies program at the University of Toronto. Their report on northern Uganda was presented to NGOs operating in the region and United Nations officials in New York.
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