In the past week, a 30-minute video about Joseph Kony and his rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), has received more than 90 million internet hits. Viewers of the video now know, if they didn’t before, that he is a wanted man with much blood on his hands. For years Human Rights Watch has investigated the LRA’s horrors, from Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. We have visited remote massacre sites and listened to hundreds of victims and survivors who want their stories heard.
Most people in areas affected by the LRA today don’t have access to YouTube or Twitter. But I am confident that many of the survivors I’ve interviewed would be encouraged to hear that the world is waking up to Kony’s brutality, and that large numbers of people want to do something to end the LRA’s atrocities.
What will it take to end the LRA’s reign of terror? Millions of young people across the world watching a video about Kony’s crimes won’t end the brutality. But the massive attention generated by Kony’s unprecedented global notoriety should be harnessed to transform good intentions into concrete and effective action.
The LRA began fighting the government of Uganda in the mid-1980s partly as a response to the government's marginalization of people in the north. It swiftly degenerated into one of the most brutal and merciless armed groups, replenishing its ranks by abducting, terrorizing, and “brainwashing” children to fight. In 2005, the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Joseph Kony and four other senior LRA leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Its forces, currently thought to number 150-300 fighters, plus hundreds of captive civilians, left Uganda in 2005 and now leave a trail of death and destruction in bordering regions of Congo, South Sudan, and the CAR.
For the last several years, as a Human Rights Watch researcher, I’ve traveled through some of the most remote areas in central Africa to speak to victims and witnesses to LRA attacks.
In March 2010, a colleague and I went to Makombo, in Haut Uele district of northeastern Congo. We had heard rumors of an LRA attack there, but we were taken aback by what we found. Dozens of victims and witnesses told us how, in December 2009, the LRA brutally killed at least 345 men, women, and children, and abducted 250 others during a four-day killing rampage. This attack, one of the worst LRA massacres ever documented, had gone unreported for months due to the area’s isolation.
During my research, I’ve talked with scores of children who had been LRA captives. One story I will never forget is of 12-year-old Eveline (not her real name), from Bas Uele district, northern Congo. She was held for more than six months and forced to become the “wife” of an LRA commander, who raped her almost daily. Eveline was also forced to kill; she didn’t remember how many. She told me the LRA didn’t release their captives because they didn’t want their camp location revealed to the Congolese army. Victims were tied up face down on the ground. Eveline and other children were forced to beat them on the head with a wooden club until they died. To make it easier to kill, the LRA taught her to view people as animals. The experience left Eveline deeply traumatized.
Despite the LRA’s 25 years of brutality, there has been no effective strategy to end its monstrous abuses.
The refrain I hear from victims and survivors again and again is the following: Why have we been forgotten? Our own governments have abandoned us. Why can’t the international community do something to end the terror and bring our children home? In a joint project with Marcus Bleasdale, Joe Bavier, and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, we recorded many of these cries for help in a video message to President Barack Obama, Dear Obama. We believed it was important for Obama and other policymakers to hear the appeals directly from those most affected by the violence.
The United States did act. In May 2010, President Obama signed into law the most widely supported, Africa-specific legislation in recent US history, the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. It committed the US government to develop a comprehensive strategy to protect civilians and work with the governments in central Africa to bring the LRA leaders to justice. Last October, the US announced it would send 100 US special forces personnel as military advisers to the Ugandan army and other armed forces in the region to help catch the LRA’s leaders.
The Kony2012 video has been criticized for oversimplifying a complex conflict in northern Uganda in which the Ugandan army also committed human rights violations. It is true that the Ugandan military has committed serious crimes, with little or no accountability, but the basic advocacy message is on target: Kony is a menace who commits horrific abuses; he should be arrested and brought to justice. Governments in the region have proven incapable of dealing with the problem; they want and need support from the international community, the US included.
But to keep the US government and other international actors engaged on this issue – since the LRA poses no direct threat to American security or financial interests – their constituents need to keep pressing policymakers.
Just by “liking” a video on Facebook, can young people actually make a difference in bringing Kony to justice? On the face of it, this appears naïve. Yet it is hard to deny that the overall impact of millions of people – including people in Congo, CAR, South Sudan, and Uganda – watching the film, tweeting about it, posting it on their Facebook walls, and yes, buying bracelets, can have an impact. It demonstrates to political leaders that ordinary people care about this issue and expect to see action.
Critics have correctly pointed out that the LRA is no longer in Uganda. (Though acknowledged in the video, this point could have been made more clearly.) But this should not imply that the LRA is a spent force, or that the video’s depictions of LRA brutality are exaggerated. Since the LRA was pushed out of Uganda, the group has been committing horrific attacks in neighboring countries.
Available statistics indicate there were fewer attacks in 2011 than the year before, though attacks have continued on a regular basis (the United Nations has reported 20 attacks already this year, in Congo alone). With the group’s leadership still intact and its tactics adapted for the difficult terrain, there are no signs that its capacity to attack civilians and abduct children has significantly weakened. There have been periods when the LRA was comparatively less violent, often while regrouping or resupplying, but these relative lulls were often followed by large-scale killings and abductions.
It is clear that capturing Kony is not the only action required to end the LRA problem. As Human Rights Watch and others have said repeatedly, ending the LRA threat to civilians requires a comprehensive solution. But capturing Kony is key. He and a small handful of other LRA leaders are central figures whose arrests would open opportunities to demobilize many fighters, rescue abducted children, and end attacks.
Any effort to arrest Kony should be accompanied by increased protection for civilians to prevent retaliatory attacks, better demobilization efforts to encourage defection; rehabilitation programs for former LRA fighters and captives; and enhanced communications systems for communities. And regional forces need to strictly observe international humanitarian law.
Some of these programs are being set up by groups on the ground, such as Invisible Children and local civil society groups. An early warning mechanism with two-way HF radios has been established so that communities (with no mobile phone coverage and limited road access) can report LRA movements and attacks. This information is logged on the LRA Crisis Tracker, an innovative and interactive map with comprehensive data on the LRA’s attacks and movements.
Such initiatives are important, but are not enough.
Many elements of a comprehensive approach were outlined in letters to regional presidents and President Obama from over 30 civil society activists, religious leaders, and human rights defenders throughout the LRA-affected region. Human Rights Watch helped bring them together at a workshop in Dungu, northern Congo, last October. These leaders have lived with the daily insecurity and worked tirelessly to document the LRA’s atrocities, aid survivors, and alert their governments and the international community. Their letters emphasized the need for regional governments to recognize the ongoing LRA threat and fully commit themselves to meaningful and active cooperation to protect civilians. These local constituents must also be a part of the conversation, and the solution.
For both detractors and supporters of Kony2012, it is important for the debate to move on to the issues that really matter to the hundreds of thousands of people in central Africa who still live in fear of the next LRA attack: What will it take to capture Kony and end the LRA threat to civilians? Today’s urgent task is to use Kony’s new international notoriety to move policymakers to take the necessary measures.
Ida Sawyer is an Africa researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch.
The Scars of Death (1997)
Children Abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda
Stolen Children (2003)
Abduction and Recruitment in Northern Uganda
Uprooted and Forgotten (2005)
Impunity and Human Rights Abuses in Northern Uganda
The Christmas Massacres (2009)
LRA attacks on Civilians in Northern Congo
Trail of Death (2010)
LRA Atrocities in Northeastern Congo
CAR/DR Congo: LRA Conducts Massive Abduction Campaign
Trial of Thomas Kwoyelo, former LRA combatant