Can the Stop Kony 2012 Video Save the International Criminal Court?

By Klaartje Quirijns and Stacy Sullivan
Posted on May 4, 2012

Peace vs. Justice director Klaartje Quirijns and producer Stacy Sullivan discuss Invisible Children's Stop Kony 2012 video, the ICC, and the importance of continued discussion around international justice. Global Voices premieres on Sunday, May 6, with Peace vs. Justice on the World ChannelAn online social screening and chat will be held on May 16 with the filmmakers and experts to discuss issues raised in the film. 

That event will take place here. 

By now, anybody who has access to the internet has probably heard of Joseph Kony, thanks to the unprecedented success of Invisible Children’s Stop Kony 2012 video. Kony’s rise from obscure Ugandan warlord to a household name is nothing short of remarkable and Invisible Children deserves accolades for raising awareness about Kony’s crimes. But Kony wasn’t really such an obscure figure before the release of Invisible Children’s video. He was, after all, the very first person to have been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) – an institution that was created to go after those responsible for the worst crimes in the world. The Lord’s Resistance Army’s murderous rampage through Northern Uganda with an army of abducted children had already turned Kony into one of the world’s greatest villains. 


If Kony had not already been indicted by the ICC, the Stop Kony 2012 video might have been a call for that to happen. The ICC, after all, was supposed to be the institution that would put a stop to impunity – make sure that future Pinochets, Milosevics, and Pol Pots of the world would be held accountable. If Kony had not already been indicted, calling for his indictment would have been a worthy advocacy goal.

But the ICC did indict Kony. Seven years ago. Following the indictment, the Ugandan military, with help from Sudanese and Congolese forces, and  even 100 military advisors from the United States, set out to arrest him. Essentially, all of the mechanisms in existence to hold men like Kony accountable for his crimes were activated. And yet, Kony remains at large, killing people to this day. So what can the Invisible Children video really accomplish by raising awareness about Kony’s crimes? 

It’s hard to imagine that Stop Kony 2012 video will result in the United States sending special forces into the jungle to arrest an African warlord that has never posed a threat to US national interests. But maybe it can force the world to take a good, hard look at what went wrong in the Kony case and how the ICC might be more effective. When the ICC issued its indictment of Kony in 2005, the LRA was actively engaged in peace talks with the Ugandan government, Once Kony and his henchmen were officially indicted, their incentive to make peace evaporated because Kony knew that if he negotiated, he would be arrested and sent to The Hague. So rather than negotiate, the LRA retrenched and continued its bloody war, establishing bases in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo where it continues to abduct children and commit atrocities.

Perhaps if the ICC had not announced Kony’s indictment (which it did with great fanfare at a press conference), but rather kept it quiet, Kony would not have gone into hiding and Ugandan forces would have had a better chance of arresting him. The practice of issuing so-called “secret indictments” proved extremely effective to the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, whose suspects kept going into hiding every time an indictment was announced. But after the court  began quietly issuing indictments, Bosnian and NATO forces were able to apprehend dozens of war crimes suspects. 

The people of northern Uganda initially had high hopes that the ICC’s indictment would put an end to the nightmare they had been living. But when they heard the ICC didn’t have a force that could come in and arrest Kony, they were quickly disillusioned. In order to arrest Kony and his top commanders, the ICC would have to work through national armies and the Ugandan army – even with outside help – proved to be no match for a devious and clever fighter with intimate knowledge of the jungle. As a result, many, if not most, people in Northern Uganda have lost faith in the ICC and view it as a Western colonial operation interfering with their affairs. They rightly view it as a paper tiger and want to administer their own forms of justice, consistent with their culture, that are rooted in reconciliation, not punishment.

But this could change if Kony were actually arrested and sent to the Hague for trial.  Perhaps if the ICC could, say, call on a special UN force to arrest its suspects, it would have a better chance of success. That may be a pipe dream, but if we accept the premise of an international court, even an imperfect one, we must discuss how arrest warrants should be enforced. We hope the Invisible Children video results in Kony’s arrest. But we also hope it provokes a more nuanced and complex discussion about international justice, a discussion that can eclipse the hype and feel-goodism of viral videos and truly help the people that are directly involved in the Kony case as well as future victims of despots yet unknown.


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