Kony 2012 and the Responsibility to Protect

On 5 March, Invisible Children (IC) released their viral sensation, “Kony 2012“, which called for the arrest of Joseph Kony, the commander-in-chief of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for his role in the commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes against civilian populations in Uganda.

IC’s Kony 2012 sought to raise awareness about the past atrocities of the LRA and their continued crimes against civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR), and South Sudan. It was also a call for action, with a particular emphasis on increasing pressure on policymakers in the United States government, which deployed 100 soldiers in October 2011 to assist Uganda, the DRC, CAR, and South Sudan in their military efforts against the LRA.

Spreading like wildfire on Youtube, Facebook, and Twitter, the video also attracted much criticism. IC was charged with oversimplifying the LRA conflict and omitting the voices of northern Ugandans by Mark Kersten and Patrick Wegner, two bloggers at Justice in Conflict with experience working in LRA-affected areas in Uganda. Mahmoud Mamdani, a professor at Makere University in Kampala, Uganda, deplored IC’s focus on a military solution to the LRA. Alex De Waal, director of the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, targeted the video for “peddling dangerous and patronizing falsehoods that it is up to the United States to help solve the problem of the LRA.

In response, IC issued a Q&A rebuttal to these critiques on their website, and have since released a second video, entitled “Kony 2012: Part II: Beyond Famous”, which the organization states, “offers a closer look at the LRA and explores the solutions put forward by leaders of the currently-affected areas of CAR, DRC, and South Sudan, where local communities continue to live under the constant threat of LRA violence.”

The idea behind Kony 2012 is not new,” the narrator of the video states as the video opens. “In 2005, world leaders unanimously agreed at the United Nations to uphold the Responsibility to Protect. This states that every single person on the planet has inherent rights that should be defended against the worst crimes against humanity, first by our own countries, and then by the global community, no matter where we live.”

Flashing pictures of Syria and Sudan, and transitioning to the focus on the atrocities committed by the LRA in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR), and South Sudan, the film states, “Although most of the world has agreed to this in theory, in far too many cases, we have failed to live up to our promise…This is why we made this film.”

RtoP, Kony 2012, and Beyond

IC has situated the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP, R2P) at the heart of their film, and premised their recommendations – continued and/or increased military participation by the United States in LRA-affected regions to assist the regional forces of Uganda, the DRC, CAR, and South Sudan, and sustained political support for the initiatives of these countries and regional organizations, like the African Union (AU), to remove Joseph Kony from the battlefield by either arresting him or killing him – on the norm as well.

This post will thus expand on the discussion of RtoP, and examine this new, international norm in the context of the LRA conflict and its application in response to threatened and actual atrocities against civilians in the region.

RtoP’s scope is narrow, but deep, meaning that it applies only to the threat or occurrence of four specific crimes – genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and ethnic cleanings – but provides for a wide range of measures that extend beyond military intervention, including preventive diplomacy, economic sanctions, monitoring missions, and the involvement of regional and international justice mechanisms. The primary responsibility to protect populations from these crimes lies first at the national level, but regional and international actors also have a responsibility to provide assistance and capacity-building to individual governments in upholding this responsibility. In the event of a failure by a state to uphold its protection obligations, these actors have a responsibility to use political, economic, humanitarian, and if necessary, military tools available within the RtoP framework  to prevent and respond to threats of mass atrocities.

The LRA Conflict and RtoP

Kony and the senior commanders of the LRA stand accused of committing widespread war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, enslavement, sexual enslavement, rape, mutilation, intentionally directing attacks against civilian populations, pillaging, and the abduction and forced enlistment of children. As unanimously endorsed by UN Member States in  2005, paragraphs 138-139 of the World Summit Outcome Document articulate that war crimes and crimes against humanity are two of the four crimes under the RtoP framework.

As Coalition Steering Committee member Human Rights Watch (HRW) documents in their Q&A on Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, the impact of the operations of the LRA in northern Uganda, where their insurgency began in 1987, was disastrous for civilians, and has induced long-term implications:

“The human toll has been most severe in northern Uganda. Between 1987 and 2006, at least 20,000 Ugandan children were abducted. More than 1.9 million people were displaced from their homes into camps and tens of thousands of Ugandan civilians died…Addressing the aftermath of the war and displacement, however, remains a massive challenge.”

But since being pushed out of Uganda by the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) in 2006, the LRA has moved into the neighbouring countries of the DRC, the CAR, and South Sudan. According to HRW, the LRA “remains an immediate menace” to those populations:

“Since September 2008 the LRA has killed more than 2,600 civilians and abducted more than 4,000 other people, many of them children. More than 400,000 people have been displaced from their homes; very few have any access to humanitarian assistance.”

A particular episode in late 2008 and early 2009, the December to January “Christmas Massacres”, highlights the terror and criminality of the LRA. After refusing to sign on to the Juba peace process in 2008, in response to the December 2008 “Operation Lightning Thunder” – a joint offensive by Uganda, the DRC and South Sudan, and supported by the United States – the LRA retaliated with vicious attacks in northern DRC between 24 December 2008 and 13 January 2009. The group also allegedly carried out a massacre of 321 people in the same region of DRC a year later in December of 2009, and abducted 250 others.

Joseph Kony, leader of Lord's Resistance Army, and target of IC's Kony 2012 advocacy campaign. (Photo: Stuart Price/Associated Press)

The LRA is thus allegedly responsible for the widespread commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in at least two countries, Uganda and the DRC. And while their numbers have supposedly dwindled in light of increased regional military pressure, civilians remain at risk. As a 28 July 2011 report from Coalition Steering Committee member Oxfam International, We are entirely exploitable’: The lack of protection for civilians in Eastern DRC’, states, the majority of people polled in an LRA-affected region felt less safe in 2011 than in 2010.

The report details that in the communities surveyed in Eastern DRC, the LRA was described as the main perpetrator of killings, torture, and abductions as well as of looting, destruction of crops and rape.

In light of the litany of past abuses by the LRA, and the continued threat of mass atrocities posed by the organization in its current areas of operation, the Responsibility to Protect remains an important framework through which national, regional, and international actors can focus their efforts of protecting populations.

However, as critics of Kony 2012 have noted, while the atrocities committed by the LRA are egregious, the group is just one part of the conflict that has spanned over 25 years and across four countries in Central Africa.

In a recent op-ed published in the Washington Times entitled The Other Half of the Kony Equation, Maria Burnett and Elizabeth Evenson, both HRW employees, also highlight the problematic record of the Uganda government’s involvement during the fight against the LRA. Noting that the LRA emerged in large part due to the marginalizing policies of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni towards the people of northern Uganda, Burnett and Evenson state, “On a lesser scale than those of the LRA, crimes by government forces nevertheless included deliberate killings, routine beatings, rapes, and prolonged arbitrary detention of civilians.”

They assert that there has been no justice for victims of these abuses by the UPDF, with the government stating that those responsible have been investigated and prosecuted, but not publicly releasing any information on the trials. And nearly seven years after releasing the indictments for the top LRA leadership, Burnett and Evenson also state that the ICC has not examined abuses by the UPDF or the Museveni government, which has, “eased pressure on Ugandan authorities to hold their forces to account.”

This remains a crucial issue for Adam Branch, a senior research fellow at the Makere Institute of Social Research in Uganda and professor at San Diego State University, in his op-ed for Al-Jazeera, Kony Part II: Accountability, not awareness. Reflecting on IC’s focus on the efforts of Ugandan and regional forces, Branch states:

“[…] The new strategy ignores the Ugandan military’s abysmal human rights record in neighbouring countries, of great concern if Uganda is to take the lead role in the campaign…Kony Part II aligns itself closely with the ICC’s Moreno-Ocampo, who has shown himself nothing if not unaccountable to the victims to whom he claims to bring justice. Moreno-Ocampo has been perfectly willing to offer impunity to the Ugandan government in order to secure the government’s co-operation in the ICC investigation of the LRA, ignoring the demands from Ugandan human rights activists that the ICC indict both sides, instead of taking sides.”

These concerns over the alleged abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government strike at the core of RtoP: All states made a commitment to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing in their endorsement of the norm at the 1005 World Summit. As such, in the context of the LRA conflict, the individual governments bear the primary responsibility for the prevention of these most egregious crimes. Regional and international actors, in recalling their responsibility to protect, must also be available to assist these nations in ensuring the safety of civilian populations.

Responding to the LRA Conflict

Kony 2012 Part II details IC’s four-point “Comprehensive Approach” to stopping Kony and the LRA in 2012, which highlights IC’s civilian protection initiatives in the region, including establishing radio stations that can broadcast and warn civilians against potential attacks, efforts to ensure the peaceful surrender of LRA soldiers, the importance of engaging in post-conflicting reconstruction and rehabilitation in LRA-affected areas, and finally, the arrest of top LRA leadership.

The video states, “Unless Kony and his top commanders surrender, or are arrested, their atrocities will not stop.” This stems from their assertion that negotiations between governments opposed to the LRA have failed to bring about an end to violence, and that the group has consistently used peace negotiations as a means to resupply and rebuild, often through carrying out mass abductions.

Joseph Kony (centre, in white) surrounded by leadership officials of the LRA, including the now-deceased Vincent Otti. (Photo: Reuters)

As such, Kony 2012 Part II calls for the international community to strengthen the ongoing military efforts of the African Union (AU) and regional governments (Uganda, the DRC, South Sudan, and the CAR), which IC states is, “the best way to apprehend top LRA leadership.”

Since 2008, these governments have coordinated militarily against the LRA, conducting joint operations in an attempt to apprehend or kill Joseph Kony and cease atrocities against civilians. Aside from the concerns raised over alleged abuses of human rights committed by the UPDF and other national armies in the region, these troops also suffer from a lack of necessary equipment, including heavy-lift and transport helicopters, and effective training, which has hampered their individual and coordinated military responses to the LRA. Such gaps in capabilities have thus made it difficult for these countries to effectively uphold their primary responsibility to protect civilians from LRA attacks.

Recognizing this, international actors have moved to bolster these efforts. The United States, dispatched 100 military advisers to the region in October 2011 to provide “information, advice, and assistance” to the national armies of Uganda, the DRC, the CAR, and South Sudan. And in March 2012, the African Union announced that it would move to form a 5,000-troop strong brigade, drawing from troops from Uganda, the DRC, the CAR, and South Sudan, to synergize their efforts in seeking to stop Kony through coordinated military action.

But Wegner at Justice in Conflict notes that despite these actions, and the potential for greater coordination by regional governments, the African Union, and the United States, the use of force has yet to be successful in the fight against the LRA:

“Military operations have so far failed to stop the LRA….Rather, they provoked retaliations and civilian casualties. During the UPDF led offensives to stop the LRA in northern Uganda and southern Sudan (now South Sudan), the LRA managed to outmanoeuvre the UPDF and spread the conflict consecutively to previously peaceful parts of the north and eventually even to eastern Uganda where civilians bore the brunt of the fury of the LRA.”

The United Nations also has various peacekeeping missions present in the region, including a UN Stabilization Mission in the DRC (MONUSCO), which has the authorization by the UN Security Council under Chapter VII of the UN Charter to use force to protect civilians, and is deployed in LRA-affected areas in the DRC.  But HRW notes that:

“The UN’s various initiatives regarding the LRA have lacked coordination and impact. While the UN missions have attempted to respond to LRA threats to civilians, it has rarely been a top priority for any of the missions and resources are often directed elsewhere.”

Civil society organizations, particularly those working on the ground in LRA-affected areas, have an all-too important role to play in the effort to protect civilians. Groups that monitor the movements of the LRA and provide early warning of attacks may ensure better civilian protection on the ground, and can alert the actors involved of the risk of imminent atrocities.  Civil society is also integral to the ongoing assessment of coordinated efforts against the LRA, and raising awareness regarding the progress of civilian protection in the region. Their work with victims and affected communities is also crucial to facilitating rehabilitation and post-conflict reconstruction, which are necessary to build a sustainable peace in LRA-affected areas.

As the international community works to protect populations from these massive human rights violations, it is crucial to reiterate the narrow, but deep scope of the RtoP. All states agreed to the responsibility to protect their populations from the crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. Furthermore, the norm provides for a broad range of political, economic, humanitarian, and if necessary, military measures that actors at all levels, including civil society, individual states, regional and sub-regional organizations, and the United Nations can implement to assist individual governments in upholding their responsibility to protect. If civilians remain at risk in spite of such measures being employed, actors at all levels must assess the tools available to them under the RtoP framework to ensure atrocities are prevented and effective civilian protection is provided.

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Filed under African Union, CivSoc, DRC, Human Rights, International Criminal Court, Joseph Kony, Kony 2012, Lord's Resistance Army, Post-Conflict, Prevention, Regional Orgs, RtoP, Security Council, South Sudan, Third Pillar, Uganda, UN

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