Kony 2012: The Complex Kaleidoscope of Transitional Justice in Uganda

by Michael Newton

[Michael A. Newton is Professor of the Practice of Law, Vanderbilt University Law School]

The Kony 2012 campaign had the laudable goal of increasing public awareness in order to aid the search for justice and accountability in the wake of LRA atrocities. In fact, the worldwide attention had the paradoxical effect of demonstrating the lamentable reality that the optimal pathway towards authentic justice for LRA victims in that setting is neither simple nor self-obvious.  This is true for a number of reasons which I shall summarize.

Firstly, the complexity of factors in Uganda and the overriding imperative for ending two decades of disastrous conflicts have led to an artificial dichotomy in debates between the poles of peace versus justice, local versus international responses to atrocities, and the population’s desire for forgiveness and reconciliation versus punishment. These artificial polarizations have clouded debates about the most appropriate ways to address conflict and its aftermath, implying either/or choices when combinations of these elements often better reflect popular perceptions and lead to more effective practical strategies. The creation of a modern holistic system of accountability for international crimes should, as framed by the aspiration of a leading Ugandan lawyer, serve as the interface of the ICC and domestic processes that “link together in an inseparable synergy the restorative/traditional, official and international justice mechanisms.”

In other words, an authentic sense of justice that benefits from a sense of local level ownership is actually a mosaic of prosecutions, accountability, reconciliation, reparations, institutional reform, reintegration, truth-telling, and (it must be also be emphasized) retribution against those recalcitrant leaders that do not want to share a revitalized sense of community peace and stability. The precise contours of these linkages remain under debate in Uganda, and victims groups tell me that their most pressing needs revolve around psychosocial counseling and educational/behavioral deficits. I shall leave discussion of the traditional tribal methods used in Uganda for another posting, but vast numbers of former child soldiers have been…

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…

Kony 2012: Social Media: Helping or Hindering Child Soldiers?

by Julie McBride

[Julie McBride is a PhD candidate at Queen’s University in Belfast, researching the development of the war crime of child soldier recruitment in international criminal law. You can find her on Twitter @JA_McBride]

When the Kony2012 video was launched last month, I found myself, for one of the first times, discussing child soldiers outside of the context of my work. Several friends asked me what the deal was with the 27-minute video (an epic length by YouTube standards) clogging up their Twitter and Facebook newsfeeds. I gave them a general synopsis of the oft-repeated criticisms of Invisible Children that were to gain even more momentum in the following days: they had some questionable financial practices, they advocated for the military intervention, and they dramatically over-simplified a complex political scenario. Although I was pleased to see that the child soldier issue appeared to have regained its status as the cause du jour, it is difficult to imagine a close connection existing between such viral campaigns and tangible results. The idea that social media can be a tool in the arrest of warlords and those indicted by international justice mechanisms appears incredibly ambitious. It also suggests that a strong relationship exists between awareness raising and action; between so-called ‘slacktivism/clictivism’ and justice. The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno-Ocampo even seems to be getting carried away, saying he thinks that Invisible Children will ‘produce the arrest of Joseph Kony this year’.

The video itself had a broad, yet simple appeal: using the son of the founder to create a distinction between the unfortunate Ugandan child soldier and the fortunate American child who describes Joseph Kony as a ‘bad guy’. But it raises the question of how social media can assist in bringing those who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice. There are two competing sides to this argument: that awareness raising on atrocities is a sufficient goal in and of itself, but, conversely, that it perpetuates a false message that knowledge of atrocities will somehow stop them; that making Joseph Kony ‘famous’ will lead to his arrest. It critically negates to account for the multitude of steps required after clicking ‘share’ that will lead to Kony in a Hague courtroom. It also fails to consider that, like all trends, the sudden interest in Kony and child soldiers will not last: after a few short days of worldwide attention…

Kony 2012: Social Media Activists as Norm Entrepreneurs

by Roger Alford

I generally subscribe to a constructivist theory of international relations. On many issues I do not think state interests are fixed and this fluidity allows a space for norm entrepreneurs to alter state preferences. With any successful campaign, specific actors promote ideas that catch fire and create a norm cascade reflected in consensus on the appropriate path. That consensus often is reflected in treaties, but it need not always be the case. The final stage is typically a process of norm internalization, in which an idea that once was novel reaches a tipping point and becomes the new normal.

Individual actors have always attempted to change state behavior. Sometimes they have done so from within the state, and altered state interests through incremental changes as political actors. Other times they are prophets from outside the system, calling for change. The examples one could give of such norm entrepreneurs are legion and the modes they have employed change with the seasons.

In the 19th century, Henry Dunant’s Memory of Solferino was an international sensation, leading to the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been one of the most instrumental forces for the development of international humanitarian law in history. In 1934 Robert Cecil promoted the Peace Ballot to rally British support for the League of Nations. The results were astounding. “Overnight, politicians of all stripes became League supporters and advocates of collective security,” wrote one historian. The photograph of Zulu Chief Albert Luthuli burning his Pass Book in response to the Sharpeville massacre of 1960 made international headlines, and for the first time in history South Africa faced overwhelming international condemnation for apartheid. Dozens of protest songs from the likes of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and The Doors helped turn the tide of American public opinion against the Vietnam War.

The point is so obvious that it scarcely needs stating: individual actors have used all types of media throughout history to alter public perceptions and force political change.

What is different about social media activists today? Two things. First, the barriers to entry are extremely low. Anyone who can effectively communicate on a digital platform is a potential norm entrepreneur. Only those who do not have the desire or ability to effectively use new media platforms are excluded from eligibility. Second, the new media platforms can reach 2.3 billion Internet users instantaneously. Everyone who is plugged in is a potential information consumer.

It therefore should not come as a surprise that a bunch of sophisticated young activists who were completely unknown to us just one month ago were able to reach over 70 million people–approximately 3 percent of all Internet users–in less than one week. Their message and strategy were incredibly effective at reaching the masses.

Of course, there is much to criticize about the Kony 2012 video if it is viewed in isolation. But the broad sweep of their campaign is much more nuanced and detailed than one video. One should think of the Invisible Children campaign as concentric circles of outreach, with the one superficial, emotive and short video everyone knows about as the outer layer of the onion. I’m not surprised that intellectuals are criticizing the Kony 2012 video. But I’m also not surprised that it went viral.

Kony 2012 has achieved the desired result, which was to make Joseph Kony famous, or rather infamous. Whether Kony will be held accountable in an international court of law remains to be seen. In the end, that may be beside the point. The court of international public opinion has rendered its verdict.

Kony 2012: IHL 2.0: Is There a Role for Social Media in Monitoring and Enforcement?

by Anne Herzberg

[Anne Herzberg is the Legal Advisor at NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based research institution. Her post is based on a forthcoming paper (2012), presented at the “Old Laws, New Technologies Conference” sponsored by the Hebrew University Minerva Center for Human Rights and the ICRC (early draft here). Anne is the co-author of Best Practices for Human Rights and Humanitarian NGO Fact-finding (Nijhoff 2012).]

Many have commented on the role of social media in facilitating the organized uprisings of the “Arab Spring”. A lesser discussed aspect of those events is the astonishing access social media has provided us to armed conflict in real time. Within minutes of Mohamar Qaddafi’s capture and subsequent killing on October 20, 2011, for instance, images of the event recorded on cell phones were transmitted around the world via social media platforms. These graphic, yet unverified, scenes were widely disseminated even before Qaddafi’s death was confirmed, and immediately sparked an international debate regarding the circumstances and legality of his killing.

Social media can be a powerful tool, focusing worldwide attention on armed conflict and international humanitarian law (IHL); and it can facilitate greater scrutiny of the battlefield. Due to its scale and the ability to easily and exponentially reproduce information (as we saw with the massive viewership of the Kony2012 video), social media is useful for quickly and efficiently publicizing events and information which can be used to generate public interest, to bolster advocacy campaigns, and to educate about the law.

One emerging social media tool increasingly used during armed conflict and promoted as a new way to “enforce” violations of IHL is “crisis mapping”. It is interesting to note that the NGO Invisible Children (creators of Kony2012) were also one of the early adopters of this technology through their LRA Crisis Tracker website…

Kony 2012: The Social, the Media, and the Activism: Kony Meets World

by Beth Karlin

[Beth Karlin is the Program Director of the Transformational Media Lab within the Center for Unconventional Security Affairs (CUSA) as well as a Research Associate at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2) and a doctoral student in the School of Social Ecology at University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on the potential and application of new media and technologies for civic engagement and social change.]

Many new trends in technology and communication are changing the landscape of civic engagement and activism.  Social justice campaigns are utilizing a broad array of strategies to engage the public through new media, including online distribution, blogs and podcasts, and extensive use of social media. Although we have seen many successful new media campaigns over the past decade, none has captured the public eye like the recent Kony 2012 video released by the group Invisible Children (IC). For many people, Kony 2012 has become emblematic of the potential reach and impact of social media– 100 million views in 6 days speaks to a whole new dimension in terms of speed and scale of communication. However, the success of Kony 2012 rests, not just on the new tools of social media, but also on much more familiar and conventional forms of political activity. Though social media may have been the catalyst, it was not the only reagent in this reaction. A few considerations in the case of Kony:


Invisible Children rocketed to global fame in March 2012 with the release of the Kony film, but this was not the first film from this group… or the second – Kony 2012 was Invisible Children’s 11th film. They screened their first film, “Invisible Children: The Rough Cut”, in 2004 and have been releasing new films fairly regularly since 2006.  A core component of their outreach model are their biannual tours, in which teams of four “roadies” travel for 2-3 months hosting community screenings in a set geographic region. Each tour corresponds with a specific film and a specific event or campaign to engage viewers.  Despite the “overnight sensation” moniker…

Kony 2012: Diverging Trajectories: Social Media and #InternationalLaw

by Mark Kersten

[Mark Kersten is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics and author of the blog Justice in Conflict. You can find him on Twitter @MarkKersten]

It is widely accepted wisdom that social media is radically transforming how we understand the world and share information. In this context, the emergence of Twitter, Facebook, blogging, etc. challenge the very practice and scholarship of International Law (IL) and International Relations (IR). Yet, IL and IR appear to be moving on a fundamentally divergent trajectory from social media. By bridging these diverging trajectories, however, IR and IL can retain salience in an increasingly interconnected world.

Reducing complexity is central to social media. The viral campaign by Invisible Children, KONY2012, serves as an obvious example. The campaign efficiently, if brutally, simplified the situation in northern Uganda and areas of Central and Eastern Africa afflicted by Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. While widely discredited after a spectacular series of blunders, Invisible Children’s message is simple, fitting within the 140 character limit of a Twitter post. Its Twitter ‘hashtags’ were short and effective, especially “#stopKony”. There wasn’t much more to the campaign – and surely that’s the way Invisible Children wanted it to be.

On the other hand, IL and IR scholarship and practice seek out complexity. More and more academic journals proliferate with increasingly specific subject-areas. The result is the creation of ‘knowledge ghettos’ where complexity is deified and often conflated with accuracy. Consider the recent verdict in the case of former Democratic Republic of Congo rebel, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the first-ever verdict by the International Criminal Court. Controversially, Lubanga was charged and convicted to what amounts to a single charge: the use of child soldiers in an armed conflict. Yet, the Lubanga judgement is 624 pages long! Of course, legal judgements have always tended to be lengthy, the ICC judges were tasked with adjudicating on a number of critical and difficult issues, and the verdict may signify more of an exception rather than a trend. But still, 624 pages? As Dov Jacobs pointedly wrote

Kony 2012: Catching Warlords with the Stars

by Sarah Kendzior

[Sarah Kendzior is an instructor at Washington University in Saint Louis. Follow her on Twitter @sarahkendzior]

Kony2012 rose and fell on the power of celebrity. “We want to make Kony famous”, Invisible Children proclaimed, and it did, enlisting the support of twenty “culture-makers” to spread the word that an African child-killer was still at large. Kony2012 is often touted as an example of how ordinary people can use the internet to influence political institutions, but what it really proved was the durability of entrenched media hierarchies. This was not a social media revolution. This was the Biebs leading the blind.

The rationale behind Kony2012’s selection of celebrities like Justin Bieber, Oprah Winfrey, Rick Warren and Rush Limbaugh to promote their cause was as clear as its donkey-elephant logo: Kony2012 was by Americans and for Americans, a salve for our partisan psychic wounds. If A-listers this diverse can come together, then anything is possible. The video molded the American vision of justice with the American fantasy of fame, making a complex conflict seem easy to resolve. Like celebrity, retribution comes if you dare to dream big. And so was born a new national pastime: catching warlords with the stars.

According to YouTube, most of the initial viewers of Kony2012 were 13-17 years old. Kony2012 drew this audience, too young to even vote, by enlarging its sense of civic possibility – you can help catch Kony, it proclaimed, and here is how you do it. The film’s Hollywood production values and emotional narrative are credited for its appeal, but just as central were its celebrity interlocutors. Would Kony2012 have gone viral without Ryan Seacrest and Rihanna? Would it have crossed the one million mark without that pivotal Oprah tweet?…

Kony 2012: The Fallacy of Slacktivism: Kony 2012 and Disruptive Activism

by Jay Milbrandt

[Jay Milbrandt is the Director of the Global Justice Program at Pepperdine University School of Law.  Jay is the author of the recent book Go and Do: Daring to Change the World One Story at a TimeYou can connect with Jay on his blog or on Twitter @JayMilbrandt]

I was the target market for Kony 2012.  I’m a connected, engaged Millennial.  I watched Invisible Children’s first movie when it came out.  I’ve met the filmmakers.  I’ve even been to Invisible Children’s office in Northern Uganda.

I was traveling abroad and not as active online when Kony 2012 went viral.  Had I been at home, I would have hit “Like” and I would have re-Tweeted it, just as I have with other campaigns.  Much of the world would have condemned my online share as “slacktivism”—a quick and easy way to feel like I made a difference.

I’ve never been interested in activism—I’ve never protested anything and I’ve never started a petition.  Except one time.  I got free on-stage tickets to U2 if I would ask concertgoers to sign petitions advocating for the release of Aung Sung Suu Kyi in Burma.  Wearing a “Burma” t-shirt and employing a clipboard, to the public, that day I was an activist.

It begs the question, in today’s world, when does one cross the threshold to “activist”?…

Kony 2012: Seven Questions about Social Media Campaigns and International Law

by Charli Carpenter

[Charli Carpenter is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She blogs at Duck of Minerva.]

One of the most curious aspects of the Kony2012 campaign is its backing by an important and powerful public servant, Luis Moreno-Ocampo. In publicly endorsing the campaign, Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, has espoused a powerful causal hypothesis: that social media campaigns are an indispensable new tool for the promotion of international justice. In the original Kony2012 video Moreno-Ocampo states: “We’re living in a new world, a Facebook world, in which 750 million people share ideas, not thinking in borders.” In the follow-up video, Beyond Famous, Moreno-Ocampo repeats the message: “We are changing the world, guys. This is completely new.” At a fundraiser in Los Angeles, Moreno-Ocampo brokered relationships between Invisible Children staff and Hollywood, and told reporters: “The Invisible Children movie is adding social interest that institutions need to achieve results.” In another interview, he stated: “Invisible Children will, I think, produce the arrest of Joseph Kony this year.”

Moreno-Ocampo’s enthusiasm for the campaign and for Invisible Children can be understood partly in terms of public relations for his own institution, and for the synonymity of IC’s narrative with the one underlying his own indictment of Joseph Kony for crimes against humanity. But his claims that campaigns like this will decisively shift public attention (and therefore policy attention toward international law and justice and the global institutions that promote them) deserve critical inquiry. Not only are those relationships probably more complicated than he suggests, but research on the “CNN effect” suggests both that this agenda-setting role of public awareness campaigns isn’t entirely new, and also that public engagement – while perhaps a good in and of itself – doesn’t necessarily translate into government policy to enforce international law…

Kony 2012: Symposium on Social Activism and International Law

by Roger Alford

Opinio Juris is pleased to announce an online symposium addressing social activism and international law. As our readers know, Kony 2012 was a YouTube sensation, spreading faster than any video in history. Although the details are airbrushed, the central theme of the video is about international law. The key idea of the video is that the indicted fugitive Joseph Kony should be brought to justice before the International Criminal Court to face charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Millions of viewers who never thought about the International Criminal Court before are encouraged to embrace this new court and take on the cause of child soldiers. In the Internet age, a handful of tech-savvy twenty-somethings captivated the globe and generated a cause célèbre. Google Trends says it all: in a matter of days an issue that was completely off the radar became one of the world’s most-discussed topics.

For the next three days, we have gathered a variety of experts to discuss social activism and international law. Given the nature of the issue, we have invited experts across disciplines to discuss the topic. Among the topics that our experts are invited to discuss are the following:

1. How does the social media phenomenon affect the way people view international law?
2. What are the pros and cons of using social media to promote international law?
3. Does social activism effectively raise awareness and promote accountability?
4. What is the difference between activism and “slacktivism”?
5. How has Kony 2012 impacted the situation in Northern Uganda and the surrounding area?
6. How has Kony 2012 impacted our perception of child soldiers?
7. What does social media activism promise for the future of international law?

Kony 2012 has generated a tremendous amount of discussion, with a wide range of viewpoints. What is often overlooked is how this viral sensation has impacted international law. So let the debate begin!