Kony 2012: Clicktivism and Child Soldiering

by Mark Drumbl

[Mark A. Drumbl is the Class of 1975 Alumni Professor at Washington and Lee University and author of Reimagining Child Soldiers (OUP, 2012).]

How does Kony2012 inform our understanding of child soldiers? How does it sculpt international efforts to prevent child soldiering?

Kony2012 feeds into and reinforces pre-existing assumptions and narratives. I argue in my book Reimagining Child Soldiers that these assumptions and narratives, however well-intentioned, lead to policy initiatives that assuage collective sensibilities but ultimately fall short in terms of actual effectiveness.

People had thought hard about the effects of media on messages, and the massaging of messages, well before the Millennials were born. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan opined that the medium was (is) the message. Jay Milbrandt is right that, to get attention, international law would do well to embrace social media. As Charli Carpenter points out, Luis Moreno-Ocampo feels similarly. But the content of the message itself still really matters. If international law grounds itself upon stylized content intentionally airbrushed just to increase attention-worthiness then, ironically, it may leave us in a worse-off position. More international law, and more attention to international law, does not invariably lead to progress, problem-solving, or improvement.

The Kony 2012 campaign encourages LRA leader Joseph Kony’s capture and transfer to the ICC to face a slew of charges, including the war crime of unlawful recruitment, enlistment, or use of children under the age of fifteen in hostilities. Although it is a war crime to recruit children younger than fifteen, international law increasingly understands child soldiers as being under the age of eighteen. In the case of armed groups, such as the LRA, enlistment of anyone younger than eighteen is unlawful, although it is not yet customary or conventional international law to ascribe individual penal responsibility for the recruitment of 15, 16, or 17 year-olds. In the case of armed forces, the push is to permit recruitment at the benchmark age of eighteen, though a minority of states permit voluntary enlistment of sixteen or seventeen year-olds (at times under strict conditions).

Criminally prosecuting and convicting commanders who unlawfully recruit children into armed forces or groups is only a very small step towards justice. Incarcerating a handful of adult recruiters does not reintegrate former child soldiers into their home communities or other communities where they may pursue a sustainable livelihood. Child soldiers do not place such incarceration high on their list of priorities; instead they emphasize education, reconciliation, physical medical care, conflict resolution, and jobs. Persons affected by the violent acts of child soldiers need for those harms to be addressed and, in turn, redressed.

Furthermore, the image of child soldiering that Kony2012 communicates to the public is not representative of the complexities of child soldiering as a whole.

This image is Africanized. Yet only about 40% of child soldiers world-wide are in Africa.  This image is of the very young child knock-kneed under the weight of automatic weaponry. Most child soldiers, however, are not young children — most are adolescents, with many aged 15, 16, or 17.  Many former child soldiers, upon demobilization, are well into their 20’s. Popularized discourse tends to portray child soldiers as boys. Yet it is estimated that nearly 40% of child soldiers are girls. Regardless of their gender, child soldiers often do not carry weapons. Only a few are implicated in serially committing acts of atrocity, even within the notorious LRA. The prevailing image is of an abducted child. Although this may be the case for a great number of LRA child conscripts, world-wide most child soldiers are neither abducted nor forcibly conscripted. Overall, approximately two-thirds of child soldiers exercise some (at times considerable) initiative in coming forward to enroll. Most child soldiers are not rescued by humanitarians, or by anyone. Most exit armed forces (including from the LRA) on their own initiative, through escape or by abandoning the group.

In short, it may amount to strategic short-term media outreach to portray child soldiers as passive clueless victims, devastated, devoid of agency, or dehumanized tools of war robotically programmed to kill. But these images belie a much more sublime, humanistic, and granular reality of resilience and potential.

Unfortunately, the Kony2012 campaign, and clicktivism generally, has a short attention span and limited shelf-life. Roger Alford opened this roundtable by posting a graph of the search volume index of “Kony”. Everyone’s focus is on the marvelous uptick. But what about the other end, very quickly arrived at – namely, the nearly equally precipitous drop? If I’m reading the graph correctly, searches today appear to be running only slightly higher than they had been in the many lonely months that preceded February’s sudden spike. It is my hope that this graph does not reflect the pulse of public interest regarding the problem of child soldiering. Such would be a palliative outcome and anodyne legacy, indeed, for the Kony2012 video. All hat and no cattle.


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