If you follow a single human rights, civilian protection, or international development advocate on Facebook or Twitter by now, you’ve been awash in the blitz that is Invisible Children’s latest piece. The hashtags #stopkony and #kony2012 have taken over the trending topics in the United States, as thousands of college students have their eyes opened to the atrocities performed in the Great Lakes region by the Lord’s Resistance Army.
As is to be expected when a spotlight is shined on an area many have already been focused on, there has been some major pushback on the simplified narrative Invisible Children provides, namely that not a single person actually affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army was interviewed for the piece, nor are actual means of producing a solution included in the film. As Laura Seay so eloquently put it on Twitter today, “the awareness of American college students is NOT a necessary condition for conflict resolution in Africa.” Longer, and excellent in substance, critiques have been penned by Dan Solomon at Securing Rights and Mark Kernsten at Justice in Conflict.
All of their judgments are extremely on point when examining the dissatisfaction that comes with the fact that the sole ask of the viewers of the video is to launch a major flyer posting effort to spread even more awareness. But you’d be hard pressed to deny the marketing strategy put in place by Invisible Children is impressive in its scope and speed. The name “Joseph Kony” is soon to become much more prevalent on many people’s lips. The question that many have, however, is “So what?” How does it matter that Kony is now as infamous among people who haven’t been paying attention this whole time as among people who have? And how does IC’s claim that “The problem is that 99% of the world doesn’t know who he is” solve the actual problems of the civilians that the LRA terrorizes? The answer to that depends on how much you believe that awareness can fully transition into action.
The power of narrative in driving solutions to conflicts is unavoidable, as is the notability of its absence. For years, the government of Sri Lanka fought against the freedom fighters cum terrorist group known as the Tamil Tigers. The conflict came to a head in 2008, with the Sri Lankan government launching an all-out offensive against the Tigers, resulting in what a UN panel of experts has since called war crimes perpetrated by both sides. The United Nations and the world as a whole were silent at the time, partially for domestic concerns, partially because of the power that the global war on terrorism narrative still possessed, and partly due to uncertainty on the nature of the conflict. In the end, there was no inspiring video to draw attention to the issue, no major push for its cease. Most people didn’t hear of the conflict until it ended, and even now, many couldn’t tell you that human rights abuses occurred at all off the coast of India.
The United Nations is belatedly attempting to bring about some form of justice on the Sri Lankan government. A small uproar resulted in the removal of Sri Lankan Major General Shavendra Silva, himself accused of allowing war crimes to be committed by soldiers under his command, from an advisory panel on reimbursement of peacekeeping contributing countries. The United States has also drafted a resolution to put before the Human Rights Council, calling out the lack of progress the government of Sri Lanka has made in holding human rights abusers accountable. All of this is post-facto guilt soothing, however. The international community didn’t move swiftly, or at all, to take any measure of punitive action against Sri Lanka at the time.
The silence surrounding Sri Lanka as it unfolded made it extremely difficult to muster public outrage or pressure on domestic governments to take action against atrocities as they occur. This in turn allows for a “complete disinterest from the UN at key moments”, as Vanessa Parra put it. In his post at The Atlantic on inconsistency in intervention, Joshua Foust implies that the ability for some crises to better mobilize public relations blitzes over others shouldn’t be the basis for policy-development. While this is true, these blitzes do at least bring the issue in question to the forefront of collective consciousness, where actions may be taken to help solutions develop, and as Solomon described provides a base for communities to organize around.
So how can these communities organize in a way that actually brings about positive change? I, for one, would like to see more engagement between these groups and the United Nations. The United Nations as an overarching institution, mostly via the Secretariat and the Secretary-General, is often ahead of its Member States when it comes to human rights protection and atrocities prevention. As just one example, see the Secretary-General’s impassioned defense of the rights of the LGBT community at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council. Compare and contrast his speech with the unwillingness of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to recognize the importance of the issue, staging a walkout of the debate.
In attempting to promote rights, the United Nations walks a careful balance between advocating positions counter to those of a minority of its dues-paying members and earning enough consternation from those states that it affects the UN’s programmatic work through withholding of funding or other withdrawals from participation. So the question becomes how does the UN as an institution, in the face of potential disagreement from Member-States, harness the civilian energy that is present in some cases? And to what extent is this energy transferable between high-profile and low-profile issues? I’m an expert on neither civilian protection nor advocacy organization, but I have to find that the United Nations would better serve if it found methods to achieve these aims. The greatest effort I’ve seen thus far is the partnership between the UN and the campaigns of the UN Foundation*, though a greater programmatic component to the bond between the two would be encouraged, along with a greater sense of agency by the United Nations itself in pushing the civilian/IGO link.
A method for joining advocacy and action that is underutilized, in my opinion, is the ability of non-governmental organizations to gain consultative membership in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Thousands of NGOs currently take part in ECOSOC’s Plenary sessions to advise resolutions as they develop, but the relationship should be more of a two-way street. Rather than merely advocating for their unique issues, the NGO members of ECOSOC should be constantly receiving, and disseminating to their own members, news from the Secretariat about how the UN is making a difference in their particular issue of note, and how help can be provided. The NGOs can then turn their members to bear on leveraging that information in lobbying domestic governments and pressing for escalation to the General Assembly and Security Council.
As it specifically relates to the Great Lakes region, the potentiality of the UN bandwagoning on the viral success of the Invisible Children project is apparent. Outreach to college campuses on how to actually provide humanitarian relief and urge the US government to do more in cooperation with the missions on the ground in the region should be ramped up immediately, by the UN’s Office of Public Affairs, the UN Foundation, and other NGOs that work directly with United Nations programmatic components. To me, the whole #Kony2012 imbroglio boils down to that I can’t fault excited college students for wanting to spread awareness of issues that don’t dominate headlines. What I can fault is organizations doing it in a heavy-handed manner with no real recourse for the peoples affected. Rather than complaining about the ineffectiveness of the campaign, we should be pushing for ways to bridge the gap between intentions and outcomes.
The United Nations could serve as a mechanism for the passion of the young advocates out there that clearly exists to find ways to translate that enthusiasm into action. The UN acts as a force multiplier when it comes to the use of force, as the Obama Administration would do well to remember when it comes to the Great Lakes, so why not when it comes to channeling advocacy and passion that clearly is there to be tapped? Without a balance of the two, advocacy and action, we find ourselves with silent atrocities such as in Sri Lanka, or instances in the DRC where suddenly everyone is aware of a problem with no viable method of affecting the situation.
(*Full disclosure: I served briefly as an intern with the United Nations Foundation, and still have many friends there.)