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Doug Saunders (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)
Doug Saunders (Randy Quan for The Globe and Mail)


The horror and the hashtag Add to ...

It is almost touching that millions of North Americans developed a sudden interest in northern Ugandan affairs at some point Wednesday afternoon and decided, as their finger slid between the latest app and the hockey scores, to hire someone to take care of Joseph Kony.

Did you click? You’re hardly alone. Who could resist retweeting, Like-ing, or +1-ing a salvo of memes against the most guilty living figure in the world, firing a binary barrage of #stopkony hashtags into the veldt? For this was surely a binary issue: The absolute evil of one pitted against the pure compassion and undeniable enthusiasm of millions.

Unfortunately, the U.S. organization behind the anti-Kony viral video and click-based fundraising campaign, Invisible Children, wasn’t actually asking for money to have a hit man take out Mr. Kony, head of the Lord’s Resistance Army. That would have been a valuable goal. The idea of a crowd-sourced hit job, with tens of millions of people serving as accessories to the crime, has considerable appeal.

Nobody would have minded. Mr. Kony and his LRA have spent the past 20 years sowing horror and violence across four African countries. He really did kidnap thousands of children and turn them into unwilling soldiers. He really did have countless people mutilated horribly. In this respect, the video is completely right. In every other respect, the idea is wrong.

The flustered response of the Invisible Children guys – some of whom first came to Uganda, alarmingly, from missionary Christian backgrounds – seemed simple enough: At least they were trying to “make the world aware.”

But it’s not quite true that nobody had heard of Mr. Kony until they saw the group’s YouTube video this week. This newspaper alone has published dozens and dozens of articles about Mr. Kony over the past 16 years, several of them on the front page. At least some of you were paying attention.

No, it was the opposite problem: There was hardly any coverage about Uganda that did not feature the Lord’s Resistance Army. Joseph Kony was the only thing we knew.

Therefore, we seem to have missed the fact that, during the past four or five years, Mr. Kony has stopped being a major concern in Uganda. There are bigger issues in Africa, things that required more urgent attention. The guys from Invisible Children seem to have missed it, too.

That wasn’t all they missed. “We are advocating,” their website declares, “for the arrest of Joseph Kony so that he can be tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a precedent for future war criminals.”

Whatever your feelings about the ICC, the ill-conceived 2005 prosecution of the LRA was one of the court’s greatest failures. Its prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, took a high-publicity step into the middle of the crisis just as Uganda’s conflict mediator, Betty Bigombe, was about to use years of careful negotiations to start peace talks between the LRA and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

Similar peace agreements had put an end to bloodshed in neighbouring countries, and most observers expected measured success in Uganda before the court stepped in. The ICC’s ill-timed indictment abruptly ended the possibility of a negotiated surrender between the exhausted parties: Mr. Kony, realizing that he would be sent to The Hague if he sued for peace, returned to the bush and forgot about reconciliation. “The ICC has made it impossible for Joseph Kony and any of his commanders who think they are going to be immediately indicted to come out,” one Uganda expert told my colleague Stephanie Nolen.

The ICC’s intervention didn’t just prevent Mr. Kony from surrendering. It also gave Mr. Museveni’s authoritarian government no reason to submit to a peace treaty, even though its record of abuses and atrocities is nearly as bad as the LRA’s. The government went back to its bloody fight against the LRA, which is nowadays mainly a rump force hiding in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. If not for the ICC, the conflict would have ended years ago.

That unfortunate state of affairs was being nudged to an end by negotiators when the Internet exploded with Kony-mania. Our clicks are just as likely to drive the LRA leader away from a truce again, and to reignite the slaughter, as they are to do anything good. Stopping Mr. Kony is a righteous meme, but there are better ways to get there than this hashtag.

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