Dear Mario,

like almost everyone else in those first days in after the KONY2012 video went online your wall on facebook and your homepage prominently displayed the support for Invisible Children, the makers of the video. I reacted with critical articles and links to blogposts until I received an E-mail from you:
“Could you explain to me the story about Mr. Kony. Please.”
Unfortunately, I cannot explain the whole story of Mister Kony. This I leave to professionals. But what I can explain to you is why I feel how I feel about the video.

Your enthusiastic response to the clip I understand. It’s a great video. You, as a graphic designer, must appreciate the art, the style, the campaign technique. I certainly do. The professional access to our emotions is the core business of Invisible Children (IC): moving people through story telling. I remember when I first encountered the organization two years ago during research about the DRC I admired the photos of sunkissed Californian kids with big smiles and cool T-shirts: This is sexy activism. This is cool.

Evidently, IC is the darling of the social media scene and interestingly enough also of the NGO world that enviously embraces the spotlight on the burning topic of child soldiers hoping to pick up some crumbs of the glamour cake as an interview with a representative from Human Rights Watch on Al-Jazzera proved. Also not surprising is that the blogosphere went viral and thrashed out criticism.

KONY 2012 exemplifies everything what is right and what is wrong with 2012. 

Right is that a video produced by and for Americans about a conflict in a location far removed from their daily life generates immense attention. Right is the underlying message: You should know. You should care. You should act.

Wrong is in my opinion the delivery. And here is why:

Simplicity…

… is the charme and curse of the video. It crassly simplifies the story, or rather, life in general. Distilled in the scene when Jason Russell explains the history of the conflict to his four year old son.  “The Bad Guy” (Kony) and the ‘Good Guy” (Jacob, the Ex-child soldier). We kill the Bad Guy and save the Good Guy.  I am not 4 years old and so are most of the viewers I assume. We have learnt that the world is not black and white but made of colours and millions of shades of grey. One shade for example is that military commanders alone are usually not the source of the evil, they are supported by an army or a group of individuals willing to commit crimes perpetrated in an environment which tolerates or even sanctions those actions. The sources are multifold: political oppression, poverty, history, economic conflicts, retaliation.

But for a crusade you need a face, a common enemy. Kony is an easy target. One poster rather inspired by stalinistic art portrays him next to Osama and Hitler. Why Osama bin Laden and Adolf Hitler? These three people operate(d) in three distinctively different contexts and are lumped together and thus boiled down to their core essence: Evil.

Evil is easy to understand, to transmit, to fight, but is seldom the only reality. Atrocities committed by the Ugandan Army are equally evil, but that does not fit easily on the poster and bracelett.

As a historian I am especially appalled by the disregard and disrespect to any historical context. “We are not just studying human history we are shaping it.” The focus on the video however lies solely on the shaping not the studying. Haven’t we learnt how powerful history is, as motor, driving force and justification for conflict and war: Rwanda, the Congo, Germany (1939), Israel.

Documentaries should move and educate but this chance was sadly missed and so was the opportunity to counterbalance the myopic narrative by an in-depth historical overview on the homepage. Sadly the entry merely accounts to 1000 words. One Thousand words for 20 years of conflict and thousands of victims. There are no links to scholarly overviews of the conflict or further information by other organisations like Human Rights Watch or the ICG. It also fails to promote the International Criminal Court further. The video thus makes a defense along those lines almost impossible. The eager audience is left hungry for  substantiated reporting and remains in the dark.

Superiority-Complex

If there was a prize for the NGO who best commodifies white man’s burden on the African continent, and more specifically in Uganda, Invisible Children would win” I would not entirely concur with this statement cited from another blog, but the presentation of Kony as a Kurtz-like figure is highly problematic. The unbound hubris of the American culture is shamelessly perpetuated. The vehement cry for the “world police” to march in and sort out the problems of Africa is beyond belief. We are reminded of the “War on Terror” and ‘Freedom on the March’ rhetoric of the Bush days.

Invisible Children claim their aim is to prosecute Kony at the International Criminal Court. No word that America is unlike 120 other countries NOT signature of the Rome Statute and thus no member of the ICC. If Americans petition their politicians for something then they should surely start there. This would lend Americans and their aspirations for justice more credibility.

Solution?

Sorry, Mario before I go into a tangent on my favorite topic, the ICC, lets have a quick look at the presented solution. America is sending troops to sort out Kony and transfer him to the ICC (which its jurisdiction it does not formally accept) and then the war ends. As pointed out in the movie itself the conflict in Northern Uganda has effectively ended. Kony has shifted operations into the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Admittedly these ares are not know for their rule-of-law or spotless Human Rights record, but this does not give us or other states the right to march across borders and disregard international sovereignty still entrenched in our global post-Westphalian system.

In its simplified message the movie also failed to tell us that the objective of Operation Lightning Thunder, the previous U.S. mission in Uganda, was to capture or kill Kony. At least to me that does not sound like justice in adherence to international rule of law. The Death Penalty is ruled out by the Rome Statute. Those slight discrepancies seem to have escaped the film makers.

Furthermore, arming Museveni who ignited the conflict in the first place and whose assaults civilians equally as cruel as the LRA seems like fighting fire with firewood. Invisible children is in the movie as well as on their homepage inappropriately quiet about the role of the government in the past conflict and thus the problematics of their proposed solution. And this ties into my last point:

The invisible children are still invisible

This western-centered piece of propaganda completely disregards any voice to Ugandans. Jacob, as the blueprint for a child soldier is exploited and reduced to a victim, whose story is neither told nor followed trough. In the 30 minutes of film there is no space for him to recall his experiences apart from the rather lurid tale of his brothers death with a panga. The ambiguity of child soldiers, their struggle and difficulties to reintegrate back to society is left out. All those lives haunted by shame, guilt and daunting memories are still not visible in the film. But they are certainly visible to their parents, to their society, to their neighboring countries who face similar challenges, to an armada of informed campaigners of activist. What right does Jason Russell have in claiming that “No one knows” and ‘No one sees”  Advocacy is good, but uniformed advocacy can bring a lot of harm.

Mario, I can cite you numerous “do-good” projects that went awfully wrong and did more harm than good. Maybe, I should remark here that the bespoken Operation Lightning Thunder was a failure and resulted in cruel retaliation acts, as demonstrated in this great piece of the Enough-Project.

I hope you are still with me Mario and have not surrendered to the inevitable complications of the real world in grey.

But, what CAN we do then? Invisible Children is thinking in the right direction: raising awareness is important, knowing is important, but only full information can lead to actions which become solutions and do not exacerbate the problems. (Ha, how simplistic of me) I would like to point out one recommendation of the International Crisis Group: Strengthening and supporting the African Union in its efforts in solving the conflict. The African Union is constantly battling with financial hardships that lead to a lack of real power. In reality it is often sidestepped by other actors such as the U.S. The LRA is a cross-border issue and should be tackled accordingly. The CAR, DRC and Uganda should bury their animosities and develop a common plan to track down Kony and his supporters. Further, Americans should lobby their government of establishing a True concern for Human Rights, join the ICC, close Guantanamo bay, give the ‘ghost detainees’ who are truly invisible all over the world a fair trial, stop disregarding the Geneva Convention and I could go on an on and on and on and no and on and on.

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