Kony 2012: Where are the Local Voices?

This is Invisible Children’s video about Joseph Kony and his murderous, child-soldier-fielding militant group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. It’s filled with bleak details about human rights abuses in places that Americans don’t often think about. And, as of today, it’s been viewed on YouTube nearly 80 million times:


One of these YouTube viewings was my own. (If you still haven’t seen Kony 2012 and don’t want to, here’s a nice concise description of the whole affair from the Guardian.) Watching the video, I was struck less by its message (i.e., in the internet age, we can save the world through our awareness alone, and let’s prove it by suddenly caring en masse about the LRA) than by the extent to which the whole 30 minutes felt like one big vanity project. More than just about anyone else — perhaps more than Kony himself — the film centers on one unknown-to-me-before-Sunday narrator/director/principal screen presence, Jason Russell. The photogenic Russell spends an enormous amount of time in front of the camera, and he’s very clearly the hero of his own sleek production. That much is clear from the moment, about 7 minutes into the video, when Russell promises to get the bad guy in an emotional conversation with Jacob, a young boy from Northern Uganda who lost his brother to one of Kony’s attacks. The exchange is a striking illustration of the self-gratifying over-promising that people trained to do human rights fieldwork are told over and over again not to do:

Russell: Jacob, it’s okay.
[Jacob crying.]
Russell, narrating: Everything in my heart told me to do something. And so I made him a promise.
Russell, again to Jacob: We are also going to do everything that we can to stop them.
Jacob: Yes.
Do you hear my words?
Do you know what I mean?
We are, we’re going to stop them. We’re going to stop them.

How to stop them? Share the video, buy some Kony 2012-branded products, and support the good guys (above all, Invisible Children and the Ugandan military) in their efforts to take down the bad.

There are a lot of intelligent ways to frame this video: as a manifestation of a new sort of internet-based activism that has the potential to transform human rights work, as a savvy internet-age marketing tool, as an unacceptable oversimplification of a damningly complex geopolitical situation, as a rebirth of the “white man’s burden” trope in sleek 21st-century guise. (And there is, it must be noted, an eerie resonance in Kipling’s reference to “…new-caught, sullen peoples / Half-devil and half-child.”) Each of these perspectives has been bouncing around the internet this past week, and I suspect that there isn’t much latent demand for me to weigh in on them. But there is one angle that, owing to my interest in transitional justice, I do want to reflect on for a moment: the impact on the halting but critical process of recovery and reconciliation currently underway in Northern Uganda.

Although Kony 2012 tells the black-and-white story of an evil man’s quest to do terrible things to innocent Ugandans, the Lord’s Resistance Army did not in fact arise in the vacuum of a sick man’s mind. It took shape in the late 1980s, part of an ongoing violent struggle between the Acholi-dominated north of the country and the central government, led from 1986 by Yoweri Museveni, who remains in power today. All sides in this conflict (including the Ugandan military) committed horrible abuses, although Kony’s LRA soon earned a reputation as the worst of the worst, and their pillaging of local villages soon lost the group whatever Acholi support it had once had. Yet even as Museveni consolidated his power and the militant group lost any semblance of a political agenda, the LRA continued its attacks in northern Uganda, funded by Sudan in retaliation for Ugandan patronage of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in its campaign against Khartoum.

Since a 2006 cease-fire, though, the security situation in Northern Uganda has improved markedly. The International Criminal Court put Kony at the top of its most-wanted list, and the Ugandan military is now in pursuit, aided by a contingent of US military advisors dispatched by President Obama last year. Although Russell’s video implies that Kony is still active in Uganda, in fact new geopolitical realities have pushed him (and his much-reduced band of followers/child conscripts) into less-stable parts of the nearby Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.

Although Kony remains a threat to the region, he is no longer anywhere near the top of the agenda in the video’s area of focus, Northern Uganda, where aid for mutilated and orphaned victims, poverty reduction, disease eradication, and reconciliation are vastly more pressing concerns. Given that several groups are currently working to promote recovery in the wake of horrendous multi-lateral conflict, one wonders how blanketing the world with a no-shades-of-grey video that makes the fighting seem current and the bloodstained Ugandan army an uncomplicated force for good could possibly have a positive impact on transitional justice efforts in the region. Surely the money that Invisible Children is charging for its $30 bracelet-and-poster-filled “Action Kits” could be better spent responding to the actual needs of victims — especially because Invisible Children’s publicity campaign might push Kony deeper into the brush and thus make him more difficult to capture. Perhaps that’s why Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama called the video “misleading” in his sharp takedown, and why residents of the Northern Ugandan town of Lira responded to a local screening with rocks and harsh words:

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I should clarify — I think it’s wonderful that Western teenagers are responding so favorably to a YouTube video that doesn’t involve singing dogs or baby pandas. And vanity aside, it seems hard to doubt that Invisible Children’s staff and supporters have their hearts in the right place. But Kony 2012 is obviously a campaign that does not take its cues from those it’s aiming to help, one which in its oversimplification-bordering-on-distortion may even set Northern Uganda back. I hope the world’s next humanitarian viral sensation can raise the bar just a little bit.


Political Complicity Article Goes Live

In case you’re burning with curiosity about the behavior of Argentina’s major Jewish political group during the country’s last dictatorship or craving a reflection on the ways in which the work of German philosopher Karl Jaspers could point us toward a more nuanced approach to the fine gradations of responsibility that define totalitarian social transformation — the final refereed version of the article I’ve spent much of the past two years working on has finally gone up on the International Journal of Transitional Justice’s website. For those wonky, nerdy, or bored enough to be interested, a full HTML version of the article can be found at this address and a pdf can be downloaded from this one. If you do give it a go, let me know what you think!

Full Text:



Interview with the Harvard Citizen

A couple of months ago, I had the pleasure of participating in the first substantive interview of my life with Matt Bieber, a fantastically thoughtful public policy *and* divinity grad student at Harvard (awesome combination, huh?) who writes the “Citizen Conversation” feature for the Kennedy School’s student newspaper, the Harvard Citizen. We talked about the research project that’s been keeping me busy these last four years, and about its implications for post-authoritarian democratic consolidation. It ran in the paper about a week ago and has also been posted–along with tons of other cool stuff–on Matt’s great blog, The Wheat and the Chaff. I’ve reposted the interview below, in case you’re curious to hear what I’ve been thinking about lately. And even if you’re not, you really should click on over to Matt’s blog and settle in for a good long read.

* * *

Matt: You write about transitional justice, among other things. Let’s start by getting some concepts on the table; what is transitional justice, where does it come from, and what does it hope to achieve?

Me: I understand transitional justice (TJ) to refer to the totality of actions taken by states or international bodies in response to significant past human rights violations. The phrase has also come to refer to a nascent, interdisciplinary academic field centered on the questions of individual and group accountability, social solidarity, and democratic consolidation that emerge in wake of such abuses. Histories of transitional justice tend to begin with the Nuremberg Trials and wind their way through post-dictatorial Argentina to the truth commissions and international tribunals of the present.

Justice, of course, is TJ’s central (if poorly defined) object. I won’t attempt to unpack something so manifold, but I will say that I don’t think transitional justice posits a different type of justice than, say, an ordinary criminal trial. The modifier “transitional” reminds us, however, that societies emerging from dictatorship, genocide, or civil war are often deeply polarized, face many competing pressures, and may have few resources. The challenged states that structure these societies must develop public policies that balance the needs of victims with the demands of institutional stability and social reconciliation. The mechanisms and practices they can employ include criminal prosecutions, historical investigations, and financial reparations. Scholars in the field haven’t agreed on a single set of goals (Is forgiveness a reasonable one? What about economic redistribution?) or a means to measure their achievement, and each discipline brings its own values and approaches to the table. My own sense of what TJ ought to achieve is bound up in my background in history; I believe that transitional justice processes within a country ought to contribute to a culture of greater respect for human rights through sharper awareness of the past and one’s own role in it.

My understanding is that transitional justice efforts thus far have focused heavily on the direct perpetrators of major crimes (the Nazis, say, or Liberia’s Charles Taylor). In your scholarship, though, you’re looking to widen the ambit of transitional justice to include civil society institutions as well – those that may have aided and abetted, so to speak, in the commission of a regime’s crimes. Tell us about your work on the DAIA case in Argentina, if you would.

You’re right to point to TJ’s dominant focus on criminal guilt, especially in a case of an international tribunal like the Special Court for Sierra Leone (the body that indicted Charles Taylor). It’s true, though, that a number of local transitional mechanisms–including investigative commissions in Latin American countries like Argentina and Chile and the high-profile Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa–have placed a fair amount of weight on the political dimension of regime crimes. The TRC even went so far as to grant amnesty to both repressors and guerrillas in exchange for an honest account of apartheid-era “political crimes.” Yet while they were attuned to political implications, these mechanisms still looked more or less exclusively at obvious criminal acts.

We think of abhorrent regimes like Nazi Germany primarily in criminal terms because their nature is, of course, profoundly criminal. Yet in truth, dictatorships with totalitarian social ambitions don’t manage the sort of social co-option necessary to commit sustained, massive human rights violations on their own. Instead, they require the political support of civil society institutions and ordinary citizens alike. In his 1947 analysis of Germany’s guilt for the Second World War, philosopher Karl Jaspers sought to clarify the complex liabilities generated by this co-option of civil society by way of an exceptionally helpful taxonomy of responsibility. He suggested that beyond criminal guilt–which adheres only to those who have committed explicit crimes–individuals and groups bear political liability for all actions which contributed to the political climate that facilitated regime abuses. (These actions could be as subtle as looking the other way in the face of regime crimes or presuming the guilt of their victims.) Such political liabilities are what I’m really interested in; to my mind, they get right to the heart of the small-scale social transformations that empower totalitarian dictatorships. The general lack of discussion surrounding political responsibility in post-dictatorial societies deprives them of the opportunity to promote a more complete and realistic understanding of the nature of abusive regimes and of the capacity of individuals to influence their own political realities, in ways both good and bad.

My work on DAIA springs from a desire to better understand the local mechanics of totalitarian social transformation, in this case in the context of the radical Process of National Reorganization, or so-called “Dirty War,” led by Argentina’s armed forces between 1976 and 1983. While recent years have seen a surge of interest in documenting and prosecuting Proceso-era crimes, few in Argentine public life talk openly and honestly about the complicity of the country’s major institutions–including media outlets, political parties, business groups, religious organizations, and the judiciary. DAIA (the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations), the official political representative of the country’s Jewish community, is one such institution. During the Dirty War, DAIA responded to a violent campaign of regime pressure by cooperating with the Proceso and further excluding its victims from the organized Jewish community. In the years since 1983, it has largely resisted efforts to critically evaluate its own past conduct. I think it’s important to analyze the behavior of groups like DAIA and to think rigorously about the political liabilities they bear for their contributions to a climate of exclusion and violence. And it should be our goal, I believe, to develop transitional justice practices that can address these liabilities in suitably nuanced ways.

Jaspers’ taxonomy involves four categories of guilt. Some of them apply at the level of institutions, and others apply to individuals. Could you say a word about each one? And why have you found them so useful in your analysis?

You’re right that Jaspers distinguishes among four dimensions of guilt–not so he can break responsibility into epistemologically distinct components, but so he can clarify guilt by exploring its implications at multiple levels. In addition to criminal and political culpability, which I mentioned in my response to your last question, Jaspers speaks of metaphysical guilt–an abstract responsibility shared among all those who failed to do everything possible to combat injustice–and moral guilt, a person’s own reckoning with the ethical implications of every one of her or his actions.

Moral and political guilt interest me most; the former centers on the individual alone (and Jaspers is quite clear that it is only the individual who can take himself to task for his or her moral failings), while the latter comes into play at the level of groups and institutions, too. For me, it’s in the interplay of moral and political guilt–and the intersection of shared and individual responsibility–that Jasper’s taxonomy gets really exciting, transitional justice-wise.

You sound like you’ve got a lot up your sleeve here.  What do you think transitional justice has to say about that intersection?  More specifically, how can efforts toward transitional justice integrate a deeply individual moral guilt with a shared political guilt?  What does that actually look like?

You’re too kind; if I’ve got something up my sleeve it’s because I stole it out of Jaspers’! As he sees it, the guilt that really counts–the kind that can transform an individual’s consciousness and lead her to change the way she acts in the world–is moral guilt, but because this sort of guilt is such an individual question, it’s something that everyone must confront personally. The best that a transitional regime can do is to show that criminal governments succeed by convincing people to look the other way in the face of their abuses and to accept the us-vs.-them thinking at the heart of their worldview. Transitional mechanisms can model responsible engagement with the kind of responsibility that these behaviors imply, providing spaces and contexts for critical self-analysis without making people feel that they are under moral attack from without. I’m not a fantasist; I’m not about to claim that the starving citizens of post-Nazi Germany would have humbly confronted the nuances of their own moral complicity if only the Allies had sought to distinguish political from criminal guilt. But if the alternative is to say nothing, or to lob over-broad charges of collaboration at a population that already sees itself as victim, then I’d say that Jaspers’ approach has real potential to better facilitate individual engagement with the darkest corners of the past.

Say a little more about what it means for transitional regimes to point out that us-vs.-them mentality and to provide spaces and contexts for critical self-analysis within their population.  Are there regimes that you think have done a particularly good job at these tasks?  And are there lessons we can learn from those which haven’t?

To be honest, I don’t really see many examples of transitional regimes that have dealt adequately with political responsibility on the level I think matters most, that of almost-inadvertent cooperation. In saying this, I should underscore that I’m a student of transitional justice more than I am any sort of expert. Opinions about the effectiveness of transitional mechanisms vary widely, and the field is still struggling to develop coherent evaluation metrics. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission–and, to a lesser extent, commissions in Argentina and Chile–did consider human rights abuses in a “political” context and provide a space for victims to speak about their experiences. But none of these commissions paid much attention to the role of civil society, nor did they address the extent of self-blinding facilitated by the criminal regimes.

A thoughtful, nuanced treatment of these topics could take several forms, really. One element could be state support for research into the role played by civil society institutions in past abuses, and/or the inclusion of the question in the mandates of post-dictatorship investigative commissions. Others could include assembling easily accessible documentary archives, holding public hearings, and designing and distributing curricular material for use in schools. Certainly, it’s something the transitional justice community needs to think more carefully about–and something that I plan to continue reflecting on for a while.

DAIA Research Article Preprint

I know this isn’t really typical blog fare, but I figured I’d mention that I’ve just uploaded a preprint of one of the academic articles I’ve been working on these past few years, which will finally be published in this fall’s issue of the International Journal of Transitional Justice. In case you’re curious, the full thing is available here on the blog, footnotes and all. The abstract’s below, in case you’d like the story in under 160 words:

A New ‘Normal’: Political Complicity, Exclusionary Violence and the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas During the Argentine Dirty War

Abstract: The military regime that controlled Argentina between 1976 and 1983 sought to radically depoliticize Argentine society through a violent campaign of social exclusion. Although this campaign required the active participation of the country’s major civil institutions, scholars of Argentina’s dictatorship and subsequent democratic transition have largely neglected the behavior of these key groups. This paper examines the conduct of one such institution, the Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas (DAIA, or the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations), the Jewish community’s official political representative. DAIA’s drive for normalcy in the face of disorienting violence led the group—like many civil institutions—to cooperate with an abhorrent regime. DAIA’s cooperation entailed no obvious crimes, but it did contribute markedly to the climate of fear and isolation central to the military’s repressive social project. Rather than continue to ignore the critical role played by groups like DAIA, transitional justice mechanisms must be developed to account for this ‘political’ sort of complicity.

WordPress won’t allow me to upload a doc file, but if you’d like a digital copy, just let me know–I’d be more than happy to pass one along!