Happy New Year, internets.
In case you’re nostalgic for 2012 already (The royal wedding! Unseasonably warm temparatures! RomneyBot3000!), good news: The podcast for the Congo in Harlem “Kony 2012: Lessons for the Congo” panel that Amanda and I participated in is now available:
Each panelist focused his or her remarks on a different aspect of the Kony 2012 campaign and subsequent kerfuffle. I chose to highlight Invisible Children’s emphasis on ICC prosecution for Joseph Kony as the ultimate goal of their advocacy, and explained why I found this strategy an awkward fit for the LRA crisis.
A point I had hoped to discuss further, but didn’t have time for, is that Kony 2012 demonstrates some of the problems that can arise when complex political situations are treated as problems for criminal justice to solve.
The idea behind the existence of the International Criminal Court is a laudable commitment not to allow criminal behavior that is also political behavior to go unpunished; to have a legal mechanism that will punish those guilty of mass atrocities that is to some extent insulated from the operation of politics. But this insulation comes at a price: Once the legal mechanism gets going, you can’t reintroduce politics, even if it might produce better peace and justice outcomes. Consequently, Uganda was not able to offer the suspension of the ICC warrants during peace negotiations with the LRA.
A number of critics (me included) have made the point that Invisible Children’s approach takes a long-standing political crisis, and reduces it to the criminality of one man. And the reaction from those who feel this criticism is unfair has been: “Why do we care? This guy has committed egregious crimes, does it really matter if we’re over-simplifying the conflict as long as he’s punished?” But it does matter, because when you choose legal solutions you are foreclosing political options.
Being aware of this tradeoff is particularly important with regard to Congo, where we see a similar move being made with the conflict minerals campaign, which tells us that the violence in the Kivus is the consequence of individual greed and criminality, not complicated political dynamics. And it’s clear why this narrative is appealing– a lot of confusing complexity washes out, and law enforcement solutions are a comparatively simple policy ask. But if the story that conflict mineral activists are telling isn’t correct, then law enforcement solutions will not address the root causes of the violence.
All of which leads me to wonder: The international criminal justice system was set up to deal with the political that is also criminal – to ensure that human rights abusers don’t get away with murder because they happen to occupy positions of political power. But is it equally well-suited to dealing with the criminal that is also political?