Monday, 19 March 2012

The bad news for Thomas Lubanga and Joseph Kony

Life for those accused and convicted of war crimes got marginally worse last week. Thomas Lubanga, militia leader and recruiter of child soldiers in Congo-Kinshasa, faces the prospect of two decades in a cell in the Hague.

Joseph Kony, the leader of Lord's Resistance Army, founded in Uganda and initially financed by the Sudan government, was the first individual to be indicted by the International Criminal Court back in 2005. Kony's charge sheet runs to the murder and abductions of tens of thousands of children, faces global celebrity.

Lubanga owes his change of circumstance to the International Criminal Court set up a decade ago and the lavishing of nearly a billion dollars on this effort at global jurisprudence. With the infamy of being the first war criminal to be convicted by the court, Lubanga has involuntarily established a critical marker for the court.

People in Ituri, in the extreme north-east of Congo-Kinshasa, have given strong support for the trial and are now pushing for the reparations on which the court is due to adjudicate. Lubanga's conviction, together with the arrival of Gambian advocate Fatou Bensouda as the court's prosecutor in July look set to boost its popular standing in Africa.

The court's toughest days lie ahead with its forthcoming cases against six prominent Kenyans, two of them presidential candidates, charged with crimes against humanity and for orchestrating the violence after the 2007 elections. And then there are its charges against Sudan's President Omer el Beshir, his defence minister and the governor of South Kordofan.

Kony's elevation from African political gangster to global villain came a little cheaper. It took a few million dollars from venture capital firms in California to sponsor a video made by a group called Invisible Children campaigning for Kony's apprehension.

In its ninth year, the campaign broke through globally last week. Its latest video – Kony 2012 – released on the internet got 100 million views in seven days. That's a few more than visit Africa Confidential's website, which has been reporting Kony's operations and political connections for two decades, indeed marginally more than the combined audience of the international pages of the New York Times, le Monde and the Financial Times.

The global reach of Kony 2012, helped by endorsements on twitter from rapper P Diddy and Oprah Winfrey, has put us mainstream journalists in the shade. Celebrity espousal of foreign causes, whatever our doubts, changes news values instantly. Correspondents reporting on the air strikes on South Kordofan in Sudan saw the story lead television bulletins across the world on 16 March – thanks to the arrest of George Clooney in a demonstration outside the Sudan Embassy in Washington.

Simplifications and factual errors in the Invisible Children video have come under fire in Africa and the west. Even criticism of Invisible Children's campaign has benefited from the group's internet celebrity. Ugandan blogger Rosebell Kagumire's challenge to the group for its 'saviour complex' projecting itself as a team of western heroes coming to the rescue of helpless Africans flashed across the internet.

Kagumire has now provoked a deeper debate about how to deal with war crimes and forced Invisible Children to respond.
Invisible Children replied that 95% of its leadership and staff on the ground are Ugandan – whatever the impression given of American command and control in their video releases.

Outgoing ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo fulsomely welcomed the publicity machine unleashed by Invisible Children. Such a breakthrough might rescue his legacy a little in Africa before he hands over to Bensouda.

Two years ago the group pressured members of the US Congress to pass a law demanding presidential action against Kony. That's why President Barack Obama despatched 100 US special forces officers to Central African Republic, Uganda and Congo-Kinshasa to back the regional hunt for Kony.

With a budget of $30 million and a deadline of a year, it's a tiny contingent compared to US deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. But if it succeeds in apprehending Kony, Invisible Children will take a slice of the credit.

For more conventional and rarefied proponents of international justice, it raises more questions about mobilising support for their causes as well as the status the International Criminal Court's indictments. The US, which is not a member, is the first country to take serious action to enforce an arrest warrant from the court.

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