Catching Warlords via Viral Videos: A Film About Joseph Kony Offers Us a New Vision of How to End Impunity
Last week, on March 5th, a 30-minute film entitled “Kony2012” was posted on YouTube and film-sharing site Vimeo. In a short time, it had 75 million viewers. The video was not—as its popularity might indicate—focused on a baby dancing to salsa music, or a pet doing funny tricks. It was a profile of the brutal warlord Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), who is currently wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC).
In this column, I will describe Kony’s crimes and explain why non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and others have been frustrated by the quest to bring him to justice. The YouTube video is an attempt to mobilize civil society to put pressure on governments to apprehend Kony, and to alert members of the public to his wrongdoing.
Commentators have been divided on the video’s merits: Some say that it misstates the facts, or that it is self-serving, in that it will likely benefit the charity that made it. Yet some, including Angelina Jolie and Oprah, have embraced the video and its renewed call for justice. (Rihanna and Justin Bieber, among others, have also tweeted their support.) Moreover, Luis Moreno Ocampo, the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, has defended the video’s creators, commenting that their campaign has “mobilized the world.”
I will also examine both the criticisms and the praise of the video, and discuss why, under certain circumstances, the use of viral videos can be an innovative and valuable approach to international criminal justice.
Background: Who Is Joseph Kony, and Why Is There a YouTube Video About Him?
Joseph Kony—who is, ironically, a former altar boy—has spread terror throughout Eastern and Central Africa for almost three decades, pursuing an aimless war that has killed thousands, and at one point, forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.
A detailed profile of Kony appeared in a 2006 issue of Vanity Fair. According to the piece, by journalist Christopher Hitchens, in 1987, Kony, a native Ugandan, appointed himself the Lord’s “anointed prophet” for the Acholi people of northern Uganda. By the mid-90s, Kony and his LRA were receiving arms and cash from Sudan to mount a bloody war in Central Africa. Kony’s methods included the recruitment of child soldiers, whom he forced to commit brutal atrocities upon civilians, including even their own family members. Since the late 1980s, the LRA has kidnapped as many as 30,000 children to serve in its militias. Moreover, as a result of LRA violence, over 1.7 million people have been displaced.
Reportedly, Kony goes into trances in which he speaks into a tape recorder, and then plays back the resulting words, which then become his commands. He has taken 50 captives as “wives,” claiming Old Testament authority to do so. He is said to use “holy water,” and to tell abducted children that the water will make them impervious to bullets. He warns any child who is tempted to run away from his army that their baptismal fluids are visible to him forever, and thus the child can always be found.
The LRA is notorious for perpetrating horrific violence, including hacking off victims’ body parts; abducting young boys to fight; and kidnapping young girls to be used as sex slaves.
In 2005, Kony fled northern Uganda to roam the dense forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Southern Sudan. Attempts to corner him and his decidedly smaller LRA force (believed to be around 200-300 strong) have failed. Despite the LRA’s diminished size, it is alleged to have killed more than 2,400 civilians and displaced 400,000 people since 2008.
In 2007, Kony briefly emerged from the wilderness and indicated his willingness to sign a peace deal with the Ugandan government. In April 2008, however, he backed out.
Kony is wanted by the ICC for crimes in Uganda and its environs, based on conduct that ranged over more than 20 years. The ICC seeks to prosecute him for crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, sexual slavery, and using children as combatants.
In late 2008, the United States backed Ugandan-led air strikes and a ground attack on LRA camps in Congo. Yet the LRA leadership, seemingly tipped off in advance, slipped into the bush and went on a retaliatory killing spree that left thousands dead.
In 2011, in a renewed push to bring Kony to justice, President Barack Obama sent 100 U.S. military advisers to the region to support and train Ugandan forces as they track down Kony, but, as of now, he is still on the run.
The Effects That Kony2012’s Creators Hope the Video Will Have
As I noted above, Kony is now the subject of a 30-minute documentary, “Kony2012,” created by Invisible Children, a nonprofit advocacy group, which has thus far received over 75 million views. The film is described by its makers as a 27-minute experiment meant to “make Joseph Kony famous, not to celebrate him.” The film will air until December 31, 2012.
Invisible Children was formed with the express intent to end the use of child soldiers in Central Africa. It uses film and social action in its efforts to raise awareness. It also partners with local communities on education and economic projects aimed at fostering peace and prosperity.
According to Jason Russell—co-founder of Invisible Children and the documentary’s narrator—the documentary seeks to raise support for Kony’s arrest and set a precedent for international justice. Russell believes passionately that if people know the truth about Kony’s 26-year history of atrocious crime, they will unite to stop him. Russell states in the film that 99% of the world does not know who Joseph Kony is.
The video features interviews with former child soldiers in Uganda who say they are fearful of being captured and killed by the rebels. Also in the video, ICC Prosecutor Ocampo states, “Stop him . . . and [that will] solve all the problems.”
The video aims to make Kony notorious by encouraging supporters to plaster U.S. cities with posters of him. Its goal is to make the fight against the LRA an issue of “national interest” in the eyes of Washington, D.C policymakers. That, the video makers claim, will ensure continued Congressional funding for 100 U.S. military advisors to keep on working with African armies to apprehend Kony.
Last Friday, after the video went viral and drew a wave of new support, the government of Uganda said that it would apprehend Kony, dead or alive. Yet as international experts acknowledge, even with heightened international pressure, finding Kony will take time.
The Video’s Critics, and Their Positions
The Kony2012 video, it turns out, is not without its critics.
For example, leaders from NGOs in Uganda claim that the video paints a false portrait of the country’s current situation. They claim that the LRA left the country in 2005, and that there is no ongoing conflict.
“What that video says is totally wrong, and it can cause us more problems than help us,” said Dr. Beatrice Mpora, director of Kairos, a community health organization in Gulu, a town that was once the center of rebel activities. “There has not been a single soul from the LRA here since 2006,” she adds. “Now we have peace, people are back in their homes, they are planting their fields, they are starting their businesses. That is what people should help us with.” With Kony now the leader of a band of only 200 soldiers, currently located in the Congo, they say it is misleading to depict the conflict as being current.
Other experts caution that the video paints a simplistic view of the conflict. For instance, they claim that the government of Uganda also engaged in human-rights violations. According to Human Rights Watch, Uganda’s government, under the leadership of President Museveni, has engaged in human rights abuses, such as illegal detention, torture, and extrajudicial killings. Moreover, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, over 5.4 million have been killed from 1996 to the present, even with an end to its war in 2003. Clearly, the narrative is more complicated.
Furthermore, some critics suggest that the film may be well-intentioned, but is wrong to suggest that military intervention or action is the right approach. They fear that the suggestion of an escalating search for Kony will only cause him to abduct more children and to go on the offensive again.
Others complain that the film is the product of two white filmmakers who, they say, portray themselves as saviors of African victims—and thus, that the film embodies a neocolonialist view of conflict. They point to the fact that the film quoted only three Ugandans, two of them politicians, and spent more time showing the filmmaker’s five-year-old son being told about Joseph Kony than explaining the history and causes of the conflict.
Finally, some critics have noted that Invisible Children may have made the film to raise funds for their own purposes, and that they do not use the majority of their funds for direct assistance. Some critics have noted that the nonprofit spends less than one-third of the funds it has received on direct assistance and programming for people on the ground in Central Africa.
In response, Invisible Children said that the video focused on Uganda because its “people and government . . . have a vested interest in seeing [Kony] stopped.” And Invisible Children plans to issue a video response to its critics on March 13th.
Despite the Criticism of Its Content, the “Kony2012” Film Is an Innovative and Worthwhile Approach to Catching War Criminals
While critics may be right that the “Kony2012” film could ideally be more comprehensive or better scripted, virtually everyone agrees that Kony is a villain who has committed horrific violence and must be brought to justice. Thus, the primary criticisms that have been made regarding the film could likely be addressed by added footage, disclaimers, and/or narration that offers more information about the conflict.
And it turns out that Invisible Children will attempt to make revisions or corrections in their response video due to air on March 13. Unlike the original video, told almost entirely through the words of Invisible Children co-founder Russell, the follow-up video will feature some of the group’s partners in Africa. The new video also acknowledges that the Kony army has moved out of Uganda into neighboring countries. But it notes that Invisible Children runs programs in those nations, too.
What is most striking, however, is that despite an ICC indictment, Kony is still at large. The international community agrees that he must be brought to justice but justice has not yet been done. Thus, Invisible Children is, at base, simply highlighting a person whom international leaders have already publicly criticized and condemned, in a new way that seeks to reach and involve many more people in the calls for bringing him to justice. Kony was the first person to be indicted by the ICC in 2005, and is thus among one of the most serious criminals wanted by the international community.
A New Approach: Targeting the Criminal Not the Just the Crime
In the past, NGOs and human rights groups have created videos that call attention to specific issues—such as the problem with so-called “blood” or “conflict” diamonds in Sierra Leone. Regarding that issue, Amnesty International and Global Witness mounted video and other campaigns to get us to boycott diamonds that were mined as part of a bloody armed conflict.
The “Kony2012” video takes a new approach—targeting a notorious warlord, and getting the public to push for justice. (Global Witness has also publicized the behavior of warlords and corrupt leaders in some short videos, but does so mainly in its reports). In the future, human rights groups may also use this approach as a way of bringing international attention to a particular warlord or war criminal and putting him on a global “Most Wanted” list. The ICC has indicted several individuals, including other LRA leaders, who are still fugitives. Future social-networking videos and campaigns could serve as a powerful educational tool and international alert. In the future, fugitives may run further than the country next door—and so the quest to bring them to justice may have a broader geographic scope.
The White House seemed moved by the video—a testament to its impact, and to the ability of social networks to mobilize people to voice their concern to those in power. Indeed, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney congratulated the “hundreds of thousands of Americans who have mobilized to this unique crisis of conscience.” Carney also said, “I think this viral video that you mentioned is part of that response, raising awareness about the horrific activities of the LRA, and consistent with the bipartisan legislation passed by our congress in 2010 the United States continues to pursue a comprehensive multi-faceted strategy to help the governments and people of Central Africa in their efforts to end the threat posed by the LRA and reduce the human consequences of the LRA’s atrocities.”
The video also educates the public—including young people—about international justice and the role of the ICC. It thus begins to educate and sensitize people about armed conflicts and their consequences for women, children, and communities. For this reason, it may help mobilize greater support—both internationally and domestically—to bring war criminals to justice.
It is hard to imagine than the “Kony2012” video would have garnered so much attention—consisting of both praise and criticism—had it not gone viral. But the fact that it has illustrates how human rights groups and other NGOs might target other warlords and bring them onto the Internet’s global stage. Next time, the video makers may want to better predict criticism in advance, and seek to provide additional context and background. But as with all new forms of protest and advocacy, someone had to go first—and Invisible Children clearly got us to take notice.
Furthermore, Invisible Children remains open to our questions even now: The group said that it intends to keep responding to as many questions as it can. It requests that all questions be sent via Twitter to @Invisible, marked with the hash tag #askicanything.