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Kony 2012: The Human Rights Campaign of Bipartisan Convenience

Having watched Kony 2012, I can’t claim that the images of suffering in Uganda were the only thing troubling about the film. The suffering there has been known for some time, communicated through news reports and documentaries before Kony 2012 and before the organization behind it, Invisible Children Inc., came into formation. What’s most novel about the film is its effectiveness in reducing the conflict into the most simple contrast of good guys and bad guys, a simplicity I thought was reserved for the most idealistic fiction.

It is worth clarifying my position that the abducted, mutilated and abused children are victims of horrendous crimes. There is little ambiguity in that. The issue I have with the presentation of their suffering is how it is wielded for a largely U.S. target audience. The film creates a sense of extraordinary inhumanity, but inhumanity in conflict zones is anything but extraordinary. This isn’t to conceal Joseph Kony in a crowded room of active human rights abusers but to dispel the film’s reduction of violence into one accountable person.

But I doubt the filmmakers are entirely unaware of my points. Rather, the simplicity is a product of their intentions which were stated openly enough by the conclusion of the film: to pressure U.S. policymakers to cooperate logistically and militarily with the Ugandan government in capturing Joseph Kony. It is with this intention that the film designated no effort to outlining the Ugandan government’s own human rights abuses, a government that made headlines around the world by a legislative effort to make homosexuality an offense punished by execution. These details would disrupt the film’s euphoria at America finally finding an issue both parties can agree on, as if bipartisan agreement alone signifies good intentions.

I witnessed the fully extent of the Kony 2012 campaign in targeting the American public when I saw the poster with Kony’s face displayed with the likes of Hitler and Osama Bin Laden. It’s a crude campaign which aims more to entice the political class than developing a consistent and single standard for prosecuting war criminals. If it was about a single standard, their posters would have Joseph Kony’s face with an American like Henry Kissinger, a man who has long avoided prosecution for his crimes against humanity. Instead of a jail cell, the man is given interviews on the BBC and CNN where journalists treat him with reverence.

The film argues that arresting Joseph Kony is a start rather than a conclusion.  This premise on its own isn’t incorrect. An inability to effectively prosecute all human rights offenders isn’t a valid argument to then let every abuser run free. This isn’t the standard we should hold the Kony 2012 campaign up to. The flaw in the campaign’s mechanism is it finds its legitimacy in prioritizing Joseph Kony’s arrest from the International Criminal Court, a permanent tribunal whose prosecutions are directed entirely at African and Arab countries while ongoing crimes against indigenous populations of the Americas, crimes by the United States and Israel against occupied populations, are outside the same jurisdiction so rigorously pursuing Joseph Kony. The same bipartisan consensus being mobilized by Kony 2012 is the same consensus that committed aggressive war against Iraq and continues to arm Israel, a country that used white phosphorus on civilians in a highly concentrated urban setting.

None of this reduces the plight of Ugandan youths subject to kidnappings by Joseph Kony’s militia. These criticisms are to prevent the model developed by Invisible Children Inc. from becoming a new standard for human rights campaigning. Human rights campaigns shouldn’t allow themselves to be shaped by existing institutions and their willingness to mobilize only for causes that don’t threaten their own interests, strategic or financial. Human rights campaigns should be disruptive rather than politically convenient. Most importantly, they should target the most untouchable of war criminals shielded by media and political institutions Kony 2012 is now trying to engage with. When Henry Kissinger or Dick Cheney are in handcuffs,  then the likes of Joseph Kony will know there is a single standard at work. Only then would the next Joseph Kony not so easily count on obscurity, indifference and geographic distance to conceal their crimes.


Afraid I only came across this excellent video response after I already blogged this post: