by Hannah Dunphy on 16 Mar 2012 | Comments
In March 2012 in cities around the world, people sat anxiously in front of their computers to focus their attention on a 30-minute video. The face of one African man became more famous than ever before as the narrator detailed his use of children under the age of 15 for brutal hostilities in Central Africa. Celebrities watched on in awe, and social media erupted with the reactions of civil society.
I’m actually not talking about the controversial “Kony2012” video by Invisible Children that has taken the word “viral” to new heights.
I refer instead to the International Criminal Court’s March 14 conviction of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo for the war crimes of conscripting, enlisting and using child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. While Angelina Jolie looked on from the gallery, distinguished English barrister Judge Sir Adrian Fulford solemnly read out the decision detailing Lubanga’s crimes. Though the unanimous decision from the judges was in large part a stern reprimand towards the recklessness of the Prosecution, it was the defense team who seemed to shrink in their seats with every passing minute.
Despite its many setbacks and valid critiques of the case, the Lubanga decision marked the completion of the first case before the world’s first permanent international criminal tribunal. It may not have reached the 100 million or so viewers that the Kony2012 film boasts, but set against the long arc of history’s battle against impunity crimes, the Lubanga verdict will have resonance for hundreds of years to come.
The ICC is the result of a century of visionary contributors who imagined a different system to punish atrocity crimes. It’s been called the most important legal advancement since the Magna Carta. At the helm of this colossal effort have been diplomats, lawyers and academics, steered true by the compass of civil society. Today, civil society (as members of the international NGO Coalition for the ICC) continue the daily fight for an effective, fair and independent ICC, despite enormous challenges facing the Court and its 120 member states in ensuring the functionality of the Rome Statute system.
One of these challenges, perhaps the greatest, has been the cooperation of these states to assist in the arrest and transfer of ICC indictees to The Hague. Kony is just one of a handful of powerful men still at large, and even the ones who are thought to be hiding, even UCLA can’t help but run into them.
Invisible Children Takes the Stage
Rewind back to 2011. On a cold New York City night in late December, I met the founders of Invisible Children at the Justice Gala, an event where Invisible children received a Justitia award for “Civic Campaign of the Year.” The front tables were packed with the international ICC cadre of politicians and diplomatic heavy weights, who had converged for an annual meeting of the ICC’s governing body at the UN. Among them was ICC Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, a fervent supporter of Kony2012.
The award was warranted, if only because Invisible Children is so well funded they’re hard to ignore (apparently, international diplomats and high school students alike are attracted to shiny, pretty things). The Kony2012 campaign, as introduced to the gala, was to be game-changer, a “get him once and for all” mission. I’ll admit, it was exciting: Kony was going to The Hague, no matter what. Enforcement crisis solved. And the crowd went wild.
Two months later, the romance with Kony2012 is over. The Kony2012 buzz from media and the blogsphere are nearly as staggering as the video’s hits on YouTube. The responses range from serious critique, to the woefully defensive, and at least one in the form of a drinking game.
So, it’s of no surprise that Ugandans were so outraged over the video that a Kony2012 screening turned violent, and future local screenings have been cancelled to avoid further embarrassment for Invisible Children. Last week at an international student conference about the Lubanga trial in The Hague, development veteran and head of the ICC’s Trust Fund for Victims Kristin Kalla summed it up when she said it was “clearly an American campaign, not a Ugandan one.”
The myriad of problems with Kony2012 I think has been already well articulated by these Ugandans, as well as experienced campaigners who know how to read past the hype. Now that we’ve gone round the block and the global attention span is moving on, it’s time to start asking Invisible Children about their future.
What’s next for Invisible Children?
Part of what Invisible Children has succeeded brilliantly in doing is seizing- and in some cases, sparking- a moment of education in students, an “A Ha!” moment (nowadays, more like an “OMFG” moment) where the rose-colored windows looking out at planet earth are shattered. The flood of member testimony on their website shows the genuine passion of their activists, determined to make a better world.
And really, who are we to say we were never one of them? Most of us working in international affairs or justice can remember such a moment, when the brutal reality of the suffering of others was presented for the first time. It’s only natural to seek the company of others struggling with the same question: “what can I do?” and cling to narrow campaigns with a good guy vs. bad guy narrative.
But as their young members grow up and begin thinking critically about the world beyond one weakening rebel group from Uganda, Invisible Children will have to meet their members’ desires for participating in a true movement for ending impunity for atrocity crimes. This, I believe, will come in the form of supporting new systems of ending impunity: the International Criminal Court, for one.
While the ICC is a part of the Kony2012 formula, Invisible Children didn’t always support the role of the ICC in Uganda. Initially, they took objection to the ICC in Uganda, similar to that of their anti-ICC Save Darfur counterparts, back when the notion of the ICC blocking a potential peace agreement was still quite popular. Today, it’s of no surprise to watch much of the Darfur student movement grow into a broader coalition working against genocide in many different parts of the world, naturally including robust support of a fair and effective ICC.
So, like so many organizations before them, it seems Invisible Children will seek larger impact and more critical thinking about their work. As it has been ever-so-subtly pointed out here, in real life, “you don’t get to throw the Emperor down a shaft in the Death Star and watch all the bad guys crash and burn.” So while I think it’s safe to assume Invisible Children’s members have more intellectual capacity than Jason Russell’s Star Wars obsessed toddler, we should still press the group to take to heart the lessons from the Kony2012 critiques.
It’s time the organization ask themselves how they can help ensure the United States seeks justice for war criminals beyond the LRA.
Fully Incorporate the ICC into the work of Invisible Children
Invisible Children should incorporate the ICC into all aspects of their work. Their chapters in the United States can use educational materials on the Court such as the excellent documentary film “The Reckoning” from Skylight Pictures, and collaborate with new campaigns from Amnesty International that seek the arrest of ICC indictees. Their initiatives on the ground in Uganda should seek collaboration with the many projects of the ICC’s Trust Fund for Victims in targeted communities.
Join Existing ICC Networks in the US
An essential part of seeking effective social change is finding your partners. Invisible Children could affirm their commitment to the ICC by joining the American NGO Coalition for the ICC (AMICC), coordinate their lobbying on The Hill with the Washington Working Group for the ICC (WICC), and join in on coordinated statements to lawmakers like the recent letter about the Lubanga verdict. Their student members can collaborate with the expanding ICC Student Network (ICCSN), and follow the work of the global civil society network (CICC) to keep their members informed on the activities of the Court. They can also join hundreds of global NGOs that participate as observers in the annual meetings of the ICC’s Assembly of States Parties meetings.
Engage Washington on the ICC
Though the US is not a member of the ICC, non-states parties can still have a huge impact on how cases progress. Though it is a fully developed institution, the ICC still needs a vital civil society movement to encourage the United States government to stand ready to assist the ICC. The US is now a non-party partner to support the work of the ICC, yet the US has only started to share information and resources with the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor, a relationship which requires public support and encouragement. Invisible Children can remind President Obama and lawmakers in Washington that the ICC is helping to fight impunity for abuses against children in other conflicts around the globe, and the United States can use its influence to assist justice efforts. For example, Invisible Children can continue to support legislation like the Rewards for Justice Program and other initiatives aimed at apprehending individuals suspected of committing atrocity crimes.
If Invisible Children reassessed how they approach their “movement” building and chooses to engage with the ICC community, their members can work to protect victims of atrocity crimes wherever they occur. By moving the US towards a future of collaboration and support of the ICC, Invisible Children can secure their place in history’s long evolution towards meaningful systems of accountability.