Kony 2012, the ICC, and the Problem with the Peace-and-Justice Divide

By Clarke, Kamari Maxine | Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview
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Kony 2012, the ICC, and the Problem with the Peace-and-Justice Divide


Clarke, Kamari Maxine, Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law


Spurred by the popular Kony 2012 video that recently went "viral," my comments today will focus on the dangerous slippage between justice and peace. This short film is just a recent example of the tendency to treat justice (popularly seen as the law) and peace (seen as political) as mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, this justice-peace binary, and discourses that perpetuate it, obfuscate some of the issues at the core of the violence on the African continent. Justice becomes reduced to law, while peace loses any justice-producing qualities. The famous adage: "We ask for justice, you give us law" speaks to part of the problem--the assumption that the search for "justice" is fundamentally about the search for law. The other part of the problem of strictly equating adjudication with "justice" is that many other actions that could also be seen by some people as "justice-producing"--diplomacy, peace negotiations, economic redistribution strategies, forgiveness rituals--fall outside of the realm of "justice" because others perceive them as lacking the "teeth" of legal accountability.

Instead, in contexts of post- or ongoing violence in Africa, the focus on international criminal adjudication as justice has recently been based on the assumption that violence in certain places in Africa--the DRC, Uganda, Kenya, or Libya--can be managed as a legal problem alone, rather than the larger structural problem that it is. Related to this, the legal doctrine of command responsibility serves as a mechanism for assigning guilt to a single chief commander and a few of his/her top aides. Its power is as much legal as symbolic--it flags the end of impunity, and that we are watching. The problem is that in most violence-based contexts on the continent where there are struggles over the management of resources or where violence is used to regulate civilian behavior, reassigning the guilt of thousands of people to a single chief commander neither accurately attends to the core problems involved in the making of war, nor does it produce the conditions for a violence-free future. Kony 2012, in the very title of the short film, does just that.

Inspired by Jason Russell's travels, Kony 2012 narrates Uganda's 25-year-old war, its violence, and the consequences of that violence: the death and displacement of millions of Ugandans. The film directly links the mass violence to Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), and demands that he be held accountable for all of the violence committed by the LRA. As Russell narrates in the film, "Kony heads the Lord's Resistance Army, a Christian terrorist group which has reportedly abducted and forced more than 30,000 children to fight with them since their revolt began in 1986." He then discloses that his commitment was inspired by a promise he made to Jacob, a young Ugandan boy whose brother was killed by Kony's men. Russell vowed he was "going to do everything possible to stop them."

The story, then, is about how American political participation and stopping a single leader will rectify Uganda's plight. The film's other driving storyline is the relationship between Russell and his son. There are good guys and bad guys in Africa, Russell says, and the way to make Africa better is to stop Africa's bad guys. Russell's savior complex is catapulted with the message that by donating money through a simple click of your mouse, and buying a kit that will help fund Joseph Kony's arrest, every American can also be part of the solution to help poor Ugandan victims. The simplicity of the message is compelling and suggests that Africa can be transformed by our philanthropy. The sad reality is that Kony 2012 is one of a series of ultimately flawed philanthropic and humanitarian gestures that claim that capturing a single commander will solve Africa's problems, and that justice equals law.

In comparing Kony 2012's message to that of the individualization of criminal responsibility seen in the new wave of ad hoc tribunals and in the ICC, the same narrative continues: that juridical action focused on a few commanders and top-ranking leaders will end impunity, and that if we support the Court's bid to arrest and try Africa's warlords, we will end impunity.

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