I didn’t watch the Joseph Kony video until today, which makes me about two weeks behind the curve. My being abroad is my excuse, though not a very good one. Over 100 million people had watched it before me.
But having watched it ‘late’ I also missed the controversy about it. Apparently, people seem to be up-in-arms about it for a variety of different reasons. I wasn’t quite sure why.
Perhaps the most frequent claim is that it over-simplifies by focusing on one bad man, and misses many others, as well as the entire context and history of the conflict. Indeed, the film does say that Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army is fighting for power alone, as though they are descendants of Machiavelli. That is difficult to believe, and somewhat simplistic. Conflicts don’t just arise spontaneously, as a result of one man wanting power alone, but are to do with a plethora of historical and environmental factors. It does not help that the Great Lakes region of central Africa is brutally affected by the ‘resource curse’, or that it is an area rife with tribal conflict, as was demonstrated by the Rwandan genocide. Uganda is not Rwanda of course, and the former (as well as the latter) may now be entering a phase of development and hope, but that does not mean Kony is absolved. Whether or not he is still active in Uganda (and while the Ugandan government claims he is not, they also say that with American assistance his threat can be “altogether eliminated”) is slightly beside the point.
Although capturing Kony won’t solve a host of other (larger?) problems, it does not make that single (but not simple) goal wrong. For this is still a man wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), and is accused of perpetrating a host of heinous acts, including – as the film emphasises – abducting children to use as child soldiers. The ICC ruling earlier this week that Joseph Markus and Sam Bright both wrote in detail about, declared Thomas Lubanga Dyilo guilty of the war crime of “conscripting and enlisting children under the age of fifteen years and using them to participate actively in hostilities”. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict highlighted the importance of this judgement for dealing with the problem of child soldiers: “The Lubanga judgment makes it very clear that this is a war crime. Sometimes when we go into the bush and meet rebel leaders, they don’t even know it’s a war crime. This will act as a deterrent.”
Conscripting child soldiers is precisely what Joseph Kony is suspected of doing. If so, does he not deserve a similar fate?
The idea of military intervention is mooted by the film, in the form of sending advisers to Uganda to assist with Kony’s capture. I have heard both the view that the film shows that US foreign policy is ultimately “selfish”, as it requires a huge amount of popular pressure to creak into a different, more normative position, and that military intervention must by its very nature be wrong. In response to the first point, every country’s foreign policy is based on what that country perceives to be in its interests: this is self-interest, a natural phenomenon, not selfishness, a moral position. And given the bad name that liberal interventionism currently has, it seems inconsistent to deplore the lack of US intervention as ‘selfishness’ even on occasions when it has “no dog in this fight” (as James Baker, a former US Secretary of State, once remarked), unless one really does want it to be the world’s policeman. Meanwhile, the cases of Sierra Leone and Kosovo would seem to provide a suitable response to the claim that military intervention is self-evidently wrong, even if it is not appropriate here.
While bringing Kony to justice will not end the conflicts in the central Africa region by itself, let alone make it a flourishing hotbed of development, it would be a good start. This does not imply that Kony is the only problem, nor its source. It is true that the film itself does little to inform viewers of the other conflicts and problems in the region. But this must lead us to consider what the point of the film is. I took it to be an advert and rallying cry for justice, not a lecture on the politics and history of the region. The film itself contains very few factual assertions, beyond the claim that 30,000 children have been recruited by Joseph Kony since the LRA’s formation in 1987. It simplifies by necessity. It attempts to touch a moral nerve, and to remind us that although children in places like North America and Western Europe are safe from becoming forced child soldiers, in some parts of the world they are not, and in many – indeed, thousands of – instances it is because of this man, Joseph Kony.
With a bit of luck, people who watch this film won’t stop their ‘research’ there, but will go on to read up a little more on who Joseph Kony is, what the context is about, and where these conflicts are taking place (and, if need be, they will hopefully look up Uganda on a map…). I would hope that the simplicities of the film are not the extent of the information absorbed, but that they are used to build a framework for understanding the problem of child soldiers, and the shamefully under-reported conflicts in central Africa.
If a portion of the 100 million-plus viewers actually does this, and subsequently become better informed about a long, bloody conflict in a forgotten part of the world, then please tell me what the problem is again?