Is Kony 2012 the right thing to do?

By now, most people who pay attention to the news are likely aware of the Kony 2012 film and campaign. Launched by the non-profit organization Invisible Children (IC), the campaign shines a light on Joseph Kony, a leader of the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group that has terrorized Uganda since 1986. The LRA kidnapped children from their homes, and turned the girls into sex slaves and the boys into child soldiers. According to Wikipedia, “[a]n estimated 66,000 children became soldiers and two million people have been internally displaced since 1986” under Kony’s brutal reign in Uganda.

In 2005, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for Kony for war crimes, but he has yet to be captured. Kony is believed to currently reside in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, or Southern Sudan.

Through the Kony 2012 campaign, IC hopes to raise Kony’s profile worldwide in hopes of finding him and bringing him to justice. And opinions on this tactic are diverse.

Some are criticizing the campaign as being another case of the white man trying to save black people. (The filmmaker and narrator is a white man, with his prominently featured little blond-haired boy.) IC addresses this by pointing out that 95% of IC’s leadership and staff on the ground are Ugandans, not white people from America.

Raising other issues is Victor Ochen, director for the African Youth Initiative Network (AYINET)—Uganda, and himself a survivor of the LRA’s war in Uganda. In a recent article, Ochen suggests that the problem is not as straightforward as IC’s film might imply. He says that “much more needs to be done.”

“In particular,” says Ochen, “there is a need for much greater protection of civilians in South Sudan and the DRC and Central African Republic where the LRA is now active. Furthermore, many of the devastating effects of the war between the LRA and the Government of Uganda have still not been addressed in northern Uganda, even though the LRA has not been active here since 2006. These include the most serious physical and mental health effects, the weakening of key social and protective services, the nearly complete absence of remedy for harms suffered, and an utter lack of accountability.”

“Second,” Ochen continues, “as someone whose brother and cousin were abducted and who are among the thousands of disappeared whose fate is unknown, I join with other Ugandans who hope our relatives are still in captivity and will come back home alive. Any advocacy aimed at military bombardment of the LRA rebels remains therefore very sensitive throughout northern Uganda, and I imagine the DRC and South Sudan and Central African Republic as well, because thousands of children and adults have been abducted and have still not come home yet. My own father is deeply traumatized due to my brother and cousin’s abduction, and every time he hears about any report of killing LRA rebels he is not sure whom they have killed and wonders if people are celebrating his beloved son’s death. These are the feelings many families have. I agree that Kony must be stopped as soon as possible. However, it must be done in a way that avoids further civilian casualties and the loss of the lives of innocent children. Raising potentially false expectation such as arresting Kony in 2012 will not rebuild the lives of the people in northern Uganda. Rebuilding communities and rehabilitating victims is what we need. The stronger survivors become, the less Kony remains an issue. Restoration of communities devastated by Kony is a greater priority than catching or even killing him.”

On the other hand, Human Rights Watch makes the point that “[a]rresting Kony and other LRA leaders would reaffirm that those who commit mass atrocities will face justice, and it would end the scourge of one of Africa’s most brutal groups.”

Amnesty International has addressed one of Ochen’s concerns by stating that any efforts to arrest Kony must respect human rights. “Anyone joining the Kony 2012 campaign should insist that efforts to arrest Joseph Kony must respect human rights,” said Erwin van der Borght, Amnesty’s Africa director. “It is also vital to make sure that any action ensures the protection of civilians in the surrounding areas.”

So clearly there is more to the problem than just finding Kony by making him famous, as IC hopes to do. But, if finding him and bringing him to justice are done carefully and properly, supported by recovery efforts to aid his victims, it would be a huge step forward for the people of central Africa who have suffered long enough.

Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views appear regularly in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail:

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