“There is a balance in the community that cannot be found in the briefcase of the white man… The real issue for the International Criminal Court is that the USA is out of its yoke. It should deal with that and leave us alone… We are forced to kneel. Where is the justice in that?”
– A Ugandan based in Gulu for Human Rights Watch, 2005
Until very recently most people had never heard of Joseph Kony, the International Criminal Court, or Invisible Children. To highlight what an impressive accomplishment it is to have so many people pressing a button that demands Joseph Kony be brought to ‘justice’ I can remember trying to talk with a group of humanitarian workers during 2008 – they were experienced experts in areas of conflict yet they didn’t have a clue who Joseph Kony was or the significance of the issue facing the International Criminal Court. Unbelievable! Of course it’s a good thing that you know about the Lord’s Resistance Army but a YouTube video is much like a ten o’clock news item; it is designed to stimulate certain emotive impulses with the aim of agreement. As such they can only ever serve as introductions to issues. Even this brief sketch can take us a little deeper and perhaps suggest reasons we should question why numerous issues were neglected by Invisible Children.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) was set up to prosecute the most severe human rights abuses and war crimes – to go after those ‘most responsible’. It’s very new and consequently could be a great success or another international failure. UNICEF first suggested that the ICC should prosecute the Lord’s Resistance Army during 1998; four years before the Rome Statute, which created the ICC, was signed. International agencies like Amnesty were pleased at the prospect. But as investigations began to draw closer, around 2005, those on the ground questioned the prospect of investigating and arresting the leaders. Some from Save the Children Uganda suggested it would increase the danger to children under captivity as well as those already escaped. These are not empty fears, the Lord’s Resistance Army has indeed attacked, hacked to death in fact, those that have escaped their grasp and increased an already fierce discipline amongst their own ranks. Similarly seeking arrests without a peace agreement in place would increase the violence to the wider population, this view is echoed by many Ugandans who suspected their President of seeking to harness international credibility. For instance the Vice-President of Acholi Religious Leader’s Peace Initiative told a UN reporter “this kind of approach is going to destroy all efforts for peace. People want the war to stop. If we follow the ICC in branding the Lord’s Resistance Army criminals it won’t stop”. Even the spokesperson for Uganda’s Amnesty Commission, which is able to grant amnesty for rebel groups except leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), suggested the ICC was making it hard for the violence to cease; what’s the incentive if they get arrested?
In short the ICC was accused of trying to make a name for itself based upon the suffering of a people who were engaged in an ongoing peace process – both sides have broken negotiations in the past and President Museveni has a number of reasons for allowing the violence to continue. Senior officers in the Ugandan People’s Defence Force were involved in cattle rustling, removing the livelihoods of the very people Invisible Children want to help. As Amnesty and many Ugandans in displacement camps acknowledge the ICC is demonstrating huge bias by investigating only members of the LRA – members of the Ugandan government stand accused of kidnapping people to use as soldiers and of arbitrary killings. Is a popular hunt and trial needed or something more akin to a Truth and Reconciliation hearing? If the hunt for Joseph Kony intensifies the situation further is it worth it? For whose benefit?
A Ugandan Human Rights Watch group also had reservations and such antipathy from those the ICC expected to work with on the ground placed it in a difficult position; justice for who? for YouTube viewers? for Invisible Children? for Ugandans? for the Acholi? for the LRA? Even the Rome Statute states that the ICC should not only work in the interests of justice but also in the interests of victims. What’s best for the victims? to stop the violence? To hunt Kony down and place him in prison?
I don’t know but a judge-mental YouTube video that seeks to popularize and polarize the crimes of one man as if he is so ordained to take all the problems of criminality and suffering away doesn’t seem to fit. It doesn’t acknowledge what came before Joseph Kony, who he learned from, the networks around him, or what the situation is now on the ground – and just what is the current situation, is Joseph Kony still active (though this is no reason not to seek justice in itself)?
Since the Patriot Act the USA has steadily been increasing its interest in Northern Uganda. But the USA is not a signatory to the Rome Statute and have ardently opposed ICC involvement elsewhere in the world, so what are their interests in the conflict; simple people power doesn’t seem to add up given the huge resources they are only willing to utilize when there is oil involved? The arrests warrants were ‘under seal’, secret, in order to help protect communities that might be attacked. This was until the Ugandan government, apparently in error, made them public. Have Invisible Children thought about the consequences of such a public campaign? Forget their financial issues it seems incredibly naïve of Invisible Children to be photographed holding guns with the ground troops – if the ICC is to be called biased surely Invisible Children are in danger of demonstrating extreme bias.
Under Article 53 of the Rome Statute the prosecutor can decide that to proceed with a prosecution is “not in the interests of justice taking into the account all the circumstances”. In April 2005 the Chief Prosecutor agreed with this point but highlighted that if that was to happen “I would stop but I will not close. Timing is possible but immunity is not”. I’m not saying don’t go after Joseph Kony but shouldn’t those affected by the LRA lead the way, no matter how slow or different their methods? Surely a distant international group who do not have to face the ramifications should not lead the way? So what are the current opinions of Ugandans and those in LRA-affected areas, especially direct victims? We cannot assess this from the Invisible Children video which is more of an evangelical advert than a news item; it’s certainly not a documentary. I am not providing any routes forward but in light of that viral video I thought it useful to have some idea of the previous debates. It is quite complicated and as one senior person from Amnesty International said to me, “publicly I would support the ICC but privately I would support the local resolution methods”.
I started with a quote and it is well worth ending with some more to acknowledge the victims and that these crimes are horrors worthy of the often too easily used title, Evil, too often used to describe some distant Other and of course never our own Western leaders.
“They also forced me to kill… So many times I cannot remember… If you refused to do the killing [with a club or panga] they would cut off the head and make you carry it… None of us wanted to carry the head, so we all had to kill…”
– a seventeen year old boy in Atiak displacement camp
“We had only moved a short distance away and I was asked to kill my mother. I first refused but I was told my mother would be asked to kill me. They kept insisting. They tried to force my mother to kill me, but she refused. They said they would kill both of us, but my mother told me I must kill her to survive”
– twenty year old woman in Gulu town