Tag: human rights watch

Invisible Children – Pretty Dang Visible

KONY, WE GON’ FIND YOU – as soon as I buy my bracelet!

Anyone who has been on Facebook and Twitter over the past 24 hours has probably seen impassioned pleas to watch a high-production video by Invisible Children, an American NGO (whose Board of Directors just happens to be entirely white American males). And anyone who is following many of the IR tweeters out there, you have also probably began to see the backlash.

For those of you who do not know what is going on, the video produced by Invisible Children discusses the conflict in Uganda with the Lord’s Resistance Army and in particular the crimes of the movement’s leader Joseph Kony – calling upon the world (particularly the United States) to act by signing a petition and, apparently, buying bracelets.

There is no doubt that Kony is – to put it mildly – a gigantic AAA asshole of the highest order, responsible for crimes that would make anyone’s stomach sick. And it is great that this video is spreading awareness of these crimes.

However, the solutions that Invisible Children (and other organisations, such as Human Rights Watch – now getting in on the #KONY2012 action) advocates are problematic. Others (see this article in Foreign Affairs) have pointed out that military humanitarian intervention in Uganda has been tried and tried again – always ultimately failing and managing to make matters a lot worse for civilians on the ground. Worse, in advocating for these policies, organisations such as Invisible Children, are giving a misleading and simplistic impression of what is actually happening on the ground:

In their campaigns, such organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders and emphasizing the LRA’s use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil. They rarely refer to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and businesses, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict.

 Mark Kersten at Justice in Conflict writes along similar lines:

It is hard to respect any documentary on northern Uganda where a five year-old white boy features more prominently than any northern Ugandan victim or survivor. Incredibly, with the exception of the adolescent northern Ugandan victim, Jacob, the voices of northern Ugandans go almost completely unheard.
It isn’t hard to imagine why the views of northern Ugandans wouldn’t be considered: they don’t fit with the narrative produced and reproduced in the insulated echo chamber that produced the ‘Kony 2012′ film.
‘Kony 2012′, quite dubiously, avoids stepping into the ‘peace-justice’ question in northern Uganda precisely because it is a world of contesting and plural views, eloquently expressed by the northern Ugandans themselves. Some reports suggest that the majority of Acholi people continue to support the amnesty process whereby LRA combatants – including senior officials – return to the country in exchange for amnesty and entering a process of ‘traditional justice’. Many continue to support the Ugandan Amnesty law because of the reality that it is their own children who constitute the LRA. Once again, this issue is barely touched upon in the film. Yet the LRA poses a stark dilemma to the people of northern Uganda: it is now composed primarily of child soldiers, most of whom were abducted and forced to join the rebel ranks and commit atrocities. Labeling them “victims” or “perpetrators” becomes particularly problematic as they are often both.
Furthermore, the crisis in northern Ugandan is not seen by its citizens as one that is the result of the LRA. Yes, you read that right. The conflict in the region is viewed as one wherein both the Government of Uganda and the LRA, as well as their regional supporters (primarily South Sudan and Khartoum, respectively) have perpetrated and benefited from nearly twenty-five years of systemic and structural violence and displacement. This pattern is what Chris Dolan has eloquently and persuasively termed ‘social torture‘ wherein both the Ugandan Government and the LRA’s treatment of the population has resulted in symptoms of collective torture and the blurring of the perpetrator-victim binary.

Beyond this, I find the entire nature of the campaign to be problematic. As this excellent post at King’s of War argues:

Will simplistic explanations of long-running wars, delivered in a Facebook-friendly manner become the future of foreign policy? If the opinion of Rihanna and George Clooney is going to dislodge ‘technocrats’ who do things like read the Military Balance, then what’s to stop intervention in Syria? Pretty much everyone with a passing interest in military affairs says “that is a very bad idea and lots of people will die” but I’m pretty sure that a bright person with access to youtube can come up with a better argument for a brighter world in which taking Assad down is an expression of democratic empowerment. The point about war and military affairs is that at some point, it requires restraint. That restraint is entirely arbitrary (and unfair) but it stops people getting killed. If Angelina Jolie in combination with Condoleeza Rice are to dictate American strategy, then restraints to force will disappear into a blur of “Let’s go get the bad guy” activism that is almost entirely ignorant of the second and third order effects of those decisions.

Last year I wrote a post that was critical of those who are concerned about the use of media which re-emphasizes the idea of “Africans as victims”. I argued that in times of famine, pictures of said famine are useful for generating much needed donations for use by reputable organisations who are combating famine in, say, the Horn of Africa. But this is something altogether different. Invisible Children has been accused of manipulating numbers in order to generate money for its cause. Worse, the vast majority of the money is not actually put towards victims of the conflict, but for advocating military intervention in Western countries. This is basically Save Darfur 2.0.

To put it simply, the situation on the ground in Uganda is complex. Military humanitarian intervention has serious consequences. Ham-fistedly intervening in a conflict of which few have a nuanced understanding of the conditions on the ground, where local actors are already engaged in trying to bring about a peaceful resolution, is not going to help and may in fact serve to make a difficult situation worse. Buying a bracelet from an American run NGO will not change this.

I am increasingly getting the feeling that if this is the future of international politics and humanitarian intervention, there are high-definition troubled waters ahead.

Other interesting  posts on Invisible Children from around the web:


How Matters


Unmuted 


Visible Children – a no doubt hastily constructed Tumblr, but one that effectively critiques the Invisible Children video.


Washington Post’s slightly less critical take of the issue that highlights the different sides of the debate.


Edit: The very darkly humoured Kony 2012 drinking game! (via Alana Tiemessen)

Share

Human Rights Watch: Between Two Worlds

Human Rights Watch founder Robert Bernstein lit a fire under human rights activists yesterday with his NYTimes op-ed yesterday, criticizing the organization for its focus on Israel rather than more autocratic regimes in the Middle East.

His argument is really about organizational mandate and issue selection: faced with the need to select among the many abuses competing for intention, how should a group like Human Rights Watch prioritize its activity? Bernstein argues it should focus on closed societies, not open ones:

At Human Rights Watch, we always recognized that open, democratic societies have faults and commit abuses. But we saw that they have the ability to correct them — through vigorous public debate, an adversarial press and many other mechanisms that encourage reform.

That is why we sought to draw a sharp line between the democratic and nondemocratic worlds, in an effort to create clarity in human rights. We wanted to prevent the Soviet Union and its followers from playing a moral equivalence game with the West and to encourage liberalization by drawing attention to dissidents like Andrei Sakharov, Natan Sharansky and those in the Soviet gulag — and the millions in China’s laogai, or labor camps.

Human Rights Watch issued a rebuttal yesterday:

Human Rights Watch does not believe that the human rights records of “closed” societies are the only ones deserving scrutiny… “Open” societies and democracies commit human rights abuses, too, and Human Rights Watch has an important role to play in documenting those abuses and pressing for their end.

To some extent this debate hinges on a tricky distinction between human rights law and humanitarian law. Human rights law governs what a state may do to its own people; since the movement has typically focused on civil and political rights, it makes sense to pay greater attention to non-democracies whose very governing structures violate the rules, than flinging barbs at violations on the margins of already free, democratic societies.

But humanitarian law governs what a state may do to the enemy in time of war, and it is humanitarian law that is relevant to the reporting on Israel that Bernstein is primarily addressing, as well as much reporting on the US. With respect to IHL, this distinction (if valid at all) breaks apart entirely, as the openness of domestic institutions has little bearing on the record of countries in war: militaries of democracies are no less likely to abuse noncombatants in time of war. In fact, Alexander Downes has found they may be more likely to do so.

In short, whatever the merits of Bernstein’s argument with respect to human rights (further picked apart by Michael Yglesias) it pretty much falls apart completely for IHL.

I think the tension Bernstein points to highlights HRW’s tenuous position at the interstices of two separate networks – human rights and humanitarian law. As Stacie Goddard points out in a recent study, betweenness of this type positions an actor to play a useful brokering role in international society, contributing to the development of new norms and ideas, and also increasing one’s influence within and between networks. However this latest PR snafu also highlights the disadvantages of being caught between two worlds with two different standards for human security agenda-setting.

Share

© 2020 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑