Wednesday, March 07, 2012

KONY 2012 and Activist Strategies

Yesterday evening, I noticed that one of my younger Facebook friends had changed her Facebook profile picture to a red square saying KONY 2012. Upon further investigation, I was led a to video produced by the NGO Invisible Children, which explains the horrific actions of Joseph Kony, leader of a guerilla resistance group that he started in Uganda called the Lord's Resistance Army in the mid-80s. The Army's "recruits" are children, mostly 13 and under, who are stolen from their parents. The boys are forced to fight, while the girls are made into sex slaves. As a result, The Hague has indicted Kony for war crimes in 2005, but has managed to evade capture and arrest.

The KONY 2012 campaign seeks to secure Kony's arrest this year by making sure that influential policy makers know that there is outrage over Kony's actions. The United States has already deployed 100 military advisers to Uganda to train the legitimate army there in tactical matters to help track Kony. However, the concern is that if there is no public pressure, the continuation of the U.S. providing military support in a non-combative role as well as the necessary technology may be called off.

So, through an Internet campaign that has gone viral, KONY 2012 is making Joseph Kony famous in a way that will influence people to put pressure on the policy makers who can keep things going in the right direction. If the government sees that people care, it is in its best interests to do something, right? Some of the tactics encouraged by Invisible Children include wearing t-shirts, plastering posters and stickers in public places, and forwarding information through social media. Basically, the same things that many grassroots activists do concerning a variety of causes, perhaps without such a high profile.

If anything the KONY 2012 campaign is a testament to the current power of the Internet and social media. It is so far being the most successful in raising awareness of Joseph Kony and his horrific crimes, which without a doubt are worthy of his arrest and punishment. However, the campaign has also come under fire for reeking slightly of colonialism and White Man's Burden. Scepticism of the use of celebrities also comes into play (here comes Bono to the rescue - again!), as well as the fact that often issues are far more complicated than being a matter of simply wearing a wristband or hanging a poster. For instance, Kony uses his child soldiers as bodyguards, so as Political Science professor Chris Blattman points out, getting at him runs the risk of resulting in many children being killed.

I am personally not a fan of military solutions, even if there is a non-combative intention. First of all, sometimes the government is not exactly honest when it comes to portraying exactly what its military is doing overseas. Canada's role in Afghanistan was always referred to as a "mission" whereby the military was in a peacekeeping role, helping to build schools and protect the rights of women. However, given the civilian casualties and other politically motivated factors for our imperialistic presence, demonstrated that it was, in reality, a war. I am a pacifist. This was not acceptable in Afghanistant, and I would not find it acceptable in Africa either. Outside of the military, there have been activists working in Uganda to bring down Kony. What about the Ugandan government itself? Invisible Children has not really addressed this - just the military.

The other problem, as some of the links critical of the KONY 2012 campaign also explain, is that sometimes the "legitimate" army of a country where there is a rebellion going on, really is not all that legitimate after all. The Sudanese and Ugandan military also have accusations of rape and looting. A government has to be careful with whom it is making a military alliance, as a result. Unless, of course, it has something to gain - in which case, human rights abuses are often ignored. Plus, where there is a "bad guy" (as Kony is described to the filmmaker's toddler son), there are usually others just like him waiting in the wings.

Without a doubt, Joseph Kony needs to be stopped. With some hesitation, I do support the KONY 2012 campaign and have purchased an action kit. I think that the method the campaign proposes has flaws, but at the very least people need to be aware of what is going on and seek solutions. After all, as has been pointed out, if children in North America were being kidnapped and forced to kill or be raped, it would be all over the news.

However, we also need to learn about the criticism aimed at its direction and ask questions when necessary. I am always being told that activists are quick to hop on to any bandwagon or cause, without looking at all the issues first. Let's get involved, but be smart about it.

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