Tag Archives: Joseph Kony

The ICC Works, But Only For Some

Thomas Lubanga

As if on cue, the International Criminal Court has delivered its first war crimes verdict before the #Kony2012 Twitter ink is dried and the template barbarism of a Ugandan fanatic has yielded its home above-the-fold.

I deploy the phrase ‘template barbarisms’ because the third-tier Congolese thug Thomas Lubanga, of whom I confidently assume you’ve heard little before today, resembles the now famous Joseph Kony, of which I’m equally confident you’ve heard a good deal. The tribal warlord trope is depressingly unoriginal, as are its signature crimes of rape, murder, and child abduction for the purpose of enforced military service. As the world considers this inaugural verdict of the International Criminal Court, some necessary criticisms will float to the surface. No one however can say that the ICC has no use: barbarism and fanaticism, like crime as a whole, never sleep.

The criticisms ought to get a good airing. In the late nineteenth century, the official and ancient boundary between civilian and soldier was erased. The parallel introduction of citizen-centered industrialized murder awoke the world to crimes so horrendous they could only be described as being “against humanity.” In both the first and second world wars, there were state organized campaigns of genocide. The Nuremberg trials established the principle of supranational — and even universal — justice, entrenching the ideas that there existed a civilized human community and that this community must stand vigilant against the work of racial cleansing and mass slaughter. But the world as a whole has not endorsed the practical measures which issue from these high-minded principles. And since the genocidaires tend to be the victors, they not only write the history, but they also have a role in determining the course of justice.

This deference to the good graces of sovereign nations is built into the Rome statute which established the ICC. Prior to the creation of this permanent international court, the tedious and drawn-out work of pursuing criminals and crimes against humanity had to be renewed with each fresh violation. Imagine beginning from scratch, with each outbreak of fanatical nationalism and tribal bloodlust from Yugoslavia to Rwanda to Iraq. Proceeding in this fashion, the pursuit of war criminals had become an inefficient and laborious exercise of reinventing the wheel. It’s therefore at least a matter of probable advantage that a standing court is ready for the inevitable business of entrepreneurial depravity.

It’s also encouraging, a decade into the ICC mandate, to see a known child predator brought to the courtroom. But that encouragement is watered down, for me at least, by the knowledge that other known abusers and exploiters of children continue to get a pass, for reasons which suggest a much deeper and cynical corruption. Rogue elements are brought to justice while certain respectable officials (see my comment above on the victorious genocidaires) evade their day in court. Who decides who is ripe for delivery to the Hague, and when? The answer is political leaders, who in some cases have their own ugly past, political agenda, and revisionist impulses.

This deference to national sovereignty was heavily lobbied by the permanent Security Council member of the United Nations, the United States of America. A non-signatory nation, the U.S. would only deliver its citizens voluntarily on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Non-signatory states may be pressured to oblige the court, but only by a directive of the Security Council members — who constitute the bulk of the non-signers. As a result, the court’s business is largely an inevitable matter of power politics, the list of those having a good and hard time of it having been drawn up by those self-guaranteed to go gently into the good night.

If you think this overly cynical, consider that the ICC’s investigations are currently limited to the world’s least politically-connected continent: Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir, former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Jean-Pierre Bemba, Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Uganda’s Joseph Kony, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. There’s no shortage of crime in Africa, but there’s no monopoly either. The Kony 2012 video was at least correct in one of its assumptions. The politics of public opinion matter, even in the presumably impartial business of justice. It’s too bad that as the world is so suddenly engrossed in a viral video, there’s so much less attention to, and awareness of, an imperfect but fledgling effort to take the civilized world’s fight against crime to the next logical, and necessary, level.

Lessons of the ‘Stop Kony’ video — let the giver beware

A commonplace of our time is that social media, Facebook and Twitter and so on, connect and humanize us. Technology has put powerful tools into the hands of the humble, and the mighty are trembling: so goes the argument. Each time I hear this encouraging notion, into my thoughts comes a passage from the 1930 treatise, Civilization and Its Discontents. Surveying the early-twentieth century’s technological advances, the author — most known as the pioneer of psycho-analysis — interjects a “critical, pessimistic voice,” which notes that:

“If there were no railway to make light of distances, my child would never have left home, and I should not need the telephone to hear his voice. If there were no vessels crossing the ocean, my friend would never have embarked on his voyage, and I should not need the telegraph to relieve my anxiety about him. What is the use of reducing the mortality of children, when it is precisely this reduction which imposes the greatest moderation on us in begetting them, so that taken all round we do not rear more children than in the days before the reign of hygiene, while at the same time we have created difficult conditions for sexual life in marriage and probably counteracted the beneficial effects of natural selection? And what do we gain by a long life when it is full of hardship and starved of joys and so wretched that we can only welcome death as our deliverer?”

When Sigmund Freud wrote of “difficult conditions for sexual life in marriage,” he drew from personal experience. Indeed, he had near-to-hand many of the woes he describes. Yet I suspect most readers would think him unduly pessimistic about the potential of technology to make human lives better. What then would people say about the sparkly attitudes, and platitudes, of Jason Russell’s viral video “Kony 2012”, which constitutes an upbeat experiment in “changing the world”?

One advantage of the Internet is that questions of this sort have been rendered easily answerable. A quick Google search, and you know for instance that skeptics have already begun the work of evaluating the finances of the not-for-profit group Invisible Children, producers of the Kony video, yielding some questions in need of answers. The writer Musa Okwonga touches upon the major points in a Telegraph article — for example, Kony 2012’s gross oversimplification of Ugandan politics and the paternalism of Western celebrity do-gooderism. “On the other hand,” he notes, “I am very happy — relieved, more than anything – that Invisible Children have raised worldwide awareness of this issue.”

So am I, with my own reservations. I began this piece citing Freud because he establishes the tone of skepticism and the balancing of opposites necessary to the study of complex human issues. Of course I would prefer that peace in Uganda were achievable by means of a publicity campaign focusing on the “bad guy” Joseph Kony. But the central paradox of technological gain alluded to by Freud — the giving with one hand and taking with another — applies also to social media. I’ll phrase it as follows: There’s more information out there than ever before, only most of it is of doubtful use and value. Some may even be harmful. Here are things to consider if you plan on supporting the Kony campaign. These are not criticisms of Invisible Children or of the Kony 2012 video; they are practical observations. May they add some ounces of value to the global conversation.

Earlier I used the phrase “Ugandan politics.” This is itself a simplification and a not-very-helpful way of approaching Uganda. African politics, from the Maghreb to the Horn, are shaped by historical tribal systems of social organization. As we see in Afghanistan, another society built upon tribal systems, conflicts pay no heed to come-lately national borders. The internal affairs of Uganda are incomprehensible if you leave out, for example, Sudan. Kony, like any military chief, has a tribe-based network of support as well as of competition. If you are a Westerner this means you may have to dismiss the nation-state and nationalism as the chief units of political currency.

Another thing of which to be mindful is that aid is often exploited by dictators. Uganda has a large army, many times larger than the several hundreds thought allied to Kony. One has to ask (along with Okwonga) “Why hasn’t the much more powerful Ugandan army put an end to Kony’s atrocities?” A couple years ago, Jane Bussmann offered some insight to this and related questions in a piece published by the Telegraph. In her assessment, “Kony has been a smokescreen for profit. While the crackpot’s kidnapping was at its peak, thousands of children snatched, tortured and raped each year, the Ugandan army was using equipment bought with aid money to run illegal mines in Congo – duty free shopping.” Skeptics have long known that African misery is banked upon by corrupt leaders. They know that so long as things are bad for their people, aid money will flow into their hands. This is not an argument against aid — only against aid given uncritically, to the first person with a viral video or a catchy song or a celebrity sponsor. Let the giver beware.

My final point is that anywhere you look — Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Uganda — there will be longstanding and local groups of citizens resisting and fighting against powerful thugs and murderers. On this International Women’s Day, I note that women are commonly on the world’s democratic and anti-corruption fronts. This is because women and their children always suffer the most under oppressive arrangements. Any campaign anywhere that does not put the great bulk of your money — and whatever else it may muster — into the advancement of women’s health and education and political emancipation is not worth your patronage. One inevitable day the cameras and the Western troops and the cash dry up, and the local people are left to their own resources. This is when we find just how well- or ill-conceived our charity was. Better to get it right from the beginning.