Over the past several weeks, we have all certainly heard something about the campaign to arrest the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony. The newly widespread awareness of Kony, and more broadly the LRA, is the result of a determined social media campaign by Invisible Children, a group that largely targets the idealistic tendencies of well-off Westerners—more specifically, teenagers and college students. Its effort has been incredibly effective in raising awareness but has drawn its fair share of critics. This intense criticism has been met with clarifications and justifications by Invisible Children, yet the debate rages on and the end result of the movement is unclear.
As a young college student with grand hopes for the world, I can certainly understand the appeal of the “KONY 2012” movement, which attempts to solve an incredibly complex problem with a seemingly simple solution: awareness. But this oblivious drive for awareness could have perverse consequences for the future of central Africa, and would exacerbate the fundamental regional problems that presently allow insurgent groups like the LRA to get away with horrendous human rights violations. Young people can give all the money they want to try to stop the evil that Joseph Kony represents, but it is doubtful that the efforts of organizations like Invisible Children will do any good for the long-term stability of the region.
Invisible Children’s official website clearly lays out its intended goals for U.S. action: “[KONY 2012] supports the deployment of U.S. advisers and the provision of intelligence and other support that can help locate and bring Kony to justice, but also increased diplomacy to hold regional governments accountable to their basic responsibilities to protect civilians from this kind of brutal violence.” Essentially, the Kony campaign is endorsing the notion of the “Responsibility to Protect,” a popular foreign policy initiative among international governing bodies that was formally supported by the United Nations Security Council in 2006. Responsibility to Protect has its foundations in the idea that the international community has a duty to defend civilians from human rights violations, especially genocide and ethnic cleansing. Invisible Children is channeling this idea to the masses to confront Joseph Kony, whom it believes to be the figurehead of an organization that is committing crimes against humanity.
But does the United States have a responsibility to protect? From America’s messy intervention in Somalia (the notorious Battle of Mogadishu in 1993) to the war in Iraq and the 100,000 civilian deaths that resulted, the idealistic hopes that push intervention forward are often themselves a cause of immense suffering. The infusion of cash, humanitarian aid, and military aid that flow into these war-torn (and often corrupt) countries can frequently contribute to further deterioration of already perilous situations. By supporting central African governments in its effort to stop the LRA, Invisible Children is already creating several problems. It is using donations in a way that indirectly props up governments which are often so corrupt that they can hardly be relied upon to provide meaningful assistance in stopping human rights violations. For example, the Ugandan government has been repeatedly cited by Human Rights Watch for torture and unlawful violence against civilians. Many of these governments would have much to gain from the elimination of the LRA but are themselves perpetrators of actions that are antithetical to international standards of human rights. Second, turning the international community’s focus to central Africa creates incentives that can actually empower groups like the LRA. As Alan Kuperman states in his insightful piece, “The Moral Hazard of Human Intervention,” “The emerging norm, by raising expectations of diplomatic and military intervention to protect these (armed) groups, unintentionally fosters rebellion by lowering its expected cost and increasing its likelihood of success.” There are many other moral hazards that complicate an intervention in central Africa by a group of idealistic Americans, and we must question how well, if at all, Invisible Children is aware of the huge risks of the level of involvement that would actually be necessary to dismantle the LRA.
While the results of this campaign have yet to play out, it is important to be skeptical about a campaign that simplifies such a complex issue down to the point of near misinformation. As college students, we must not be swept up by the overly simplistic idealism of campaigns like KONY 2012 that play into our “highest instincts,” nor become jaded by the intense complexity of humanitarian interventions. We must search for solutions to human rights abuses at home and abroad, but without understanding many of the perverse consequences of humanitarian intervention, our good intentions could well bring more pain and suffering to a region that does not need any more meddling from Western nations.
Dillon Cory is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.