Off-Topic: What the response to Invisible Children’s video says about the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine

Apologies for the absence of citations and sources in this post, am traveling and have limited connectivity – MPM, 3/18/12.

Lost within all the kerfuffle about the veracity of the claims made in the “Kony 2012” video produced by the NGO Invisible Children and the subsequent hospitalization of Invisible Children’s co-founder and the video’s director, Jason Russell, for “exhaustion” is a discussion of the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine.  In the video, Invisible Children urges the United States to take action to capture Joseph Kony and the other leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army and deliver them to the International Criminal Court to face the charges they have been indicted for.  I’m not going to wade into the discussions of the veracity of Invisible Children’s claims; those have been handled elsewhere by luminaries such as Alex de Waal and Rosebell Kagire.  Instead, I want to address the R2P context in which Invisible Children is acting and how the uproar against Invisible Children’s actions demonstrate the flaws in the R2P doctrine and the weakness of legitimacy for the International Criminal Court. 

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2005. R2P is an outgrowth of previous civil-society driven international initiatives such as the Mine Ban Treaty and international justice precedents like the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the special courts set up by the international community in the wake of crimes against humanity in Rwanda, Cambodia, Sierra Leone and Bosnia-Herzegovina.  R2P is to security what the ICC was to justice: when a nation’s judicial system is inadequate or unable to fairly try cases of crimes against humanity, the ICC will step in; when a nation’s military and police force is unable or unwilling to provide security to the citizens of that nation, the international community will step in.  Both the ICC and R2P represent fundamental challenges to a nation’s sovereignty, essentially saying the in order for a nation to maintain its sovereignty, that nation must provide security and justice for its citizens.  The ICC has been criticized in many corners as a paternalistic and “Western” entity, imposing “Western” concepts of justice on the developing world.  The ICC has also been criticized for only bringing indictments against Africans and not against any criminals from other continents. 

First, I think it’s important to point out that Invisible Children and the related organization Resolve (formerly Resolve Uganda) have managed to spark a global conversation about the LRA and Joseph Kony.  I am writing this from India and saw editorials in the newspapers here on the #Kony2012 campaign.  Invisible Children produced a widely seen internet video, dominated Twitter and got Africans and Africanists around the world to write article, editorials and blog posts on the subject.  In a matter of days, Invisible Children demonstrated to power of social media to raise awareness and communicate a specific message to a worldwide audience.  Activists should study how Invisible Children was able to do this and take from them the lessons learned.  Simply put, Invisible Children have figured out how to make a social media campaign effective and established a model for future campaigns.  I can’t help but think part of the criticism of Invisible Children is born of jealousy and frustration on the part of activists and Africanists who for decades were trying to bring greater attention and action to Northern Uganda in response to the LRA with measured and well-argued campaigns and then saw the ease with which Invisible Children was able to almost instantly seize the world’s attention. 

Second, this is not the first time an innovative campaign has been centered on the Lord’s Resistance Army.  In 2010, Resolve drafted the Lord’s Resistance Army >Capture and Assistance Act< and then targeted the members of the Foreign Affairs committee of the House of Representatives.  Staging what they called the “Hometown Shakedown,” Resolve volunteers camped out at the district offices of the members of the committee to shame them into passing the bill which, because it dictated foreign policy to the President, fundamentally violated the role of the House of Representatives as described in the Constitution.  Let me say that again because it’s so important: Resolve got the US Congress to pass a bill dictating US foreign policy in contravention of the separation of powers in the Constitution.  What’s more, the bill was passed by the full House once the Committee had approved it and then President Obama signed it into law.  Resolve re-wrote the Constitution to get the US government to address its issue, the continued existence of the Lord’s Resistance Army.  I have been stunned that other organizations have not realized the full measure of what Resolve was able to accomplish and used similar methods to get Congressional committees and the Congress as a whole to draft and send bills to the President for signature. 

When he signed the LRA act into law, Obama committed the US to developing and implementing a strategy to capture Joseph Kony and bring to an end the LRA rebellion.  This is the US military intervention discussed in the Invisible Children video that has raised so much attention and concern.  Currently 100 US Special Forces soldiers are embedded with the Ugandan army providing intelligence and logistical support for the pursuit of Kony and the LRA. 

Now, let’s get into the tricky part.  This intervention and the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 both fall under the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect, even though the US and NATO did not specifically invoke the doctrine.  The R2P doctrine states that when nations are unable or unwilling to provide security for their citizens, then the international community has the moral obligation and the legal authority to step in and provide the necessary security.  In this formulation, Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic were unable to prevent the predations of the LRA; Libya was unwilling to protect its citizens and even seemed on the verge of massacring tens of thousands of Libyans in Benghazi. As a result, the United States and the international community had the responsibility to intervene in these conflicts. 

The problem is that intervention under R2P eliminates the possibility of “African solutions for African problems” which is half of the critique of Invisible Children’s position; the other half of the critique is the simplicity of Invisible Children’s position.  The simplicity of Invisible Children’s presentation belies the fact that Invisible Children is advocating for the exact same response to the LRA that the International Crisis Group (ICG) has advocated for; Invisible Children’s argument was cruder and more visceral, but underneath, they are the same plans and no one has critiqued ICG, therefore the intervention proposed by Invisible Children may have some validity.  The other side of the critique, the question of R2P versus “African solutions to African problems,” is an important argument that needs to be had.  “African solutions to African problems” and R2P would seem to be mutually exclusive and that is the problem: either R2P is a valid doctrine and the international community has the responsibility to intervene or R2P is an invalid doctrine and conflicts, no matter how violent and how terrible, should be resolved by the participants or their neighbors. 

The African Union has, in recent years, become more active in peacekeeping missions, but does not have a peace-making ability.  In theory, the African Union has a Peace and Security Committee which could take on a peace-making role, but no military or security forces have been pledged for that purpose.  One place where the African Union and other countries have made interventions that could be considered an application of the R2P doctrine is Somalia.

Beginning in 2006 with the US-backed invasion of Somalia by the Ethiopian Army, Somalia has been the site of African interventions under an R2P-like mandate.  In 2006, the Ethiopian army entered and occupied large sections of southern Somalia to oust the Islamic Courts Union (ICU).  Ethiopia justified its actions by saying the ICU was not providing security to Somalis and was violating the human rights of Somalis, especially women.  Ethiopia was initially successful in removing the ICU from power, restoring nominal control of the country to the UN-sponsored Transitional Federal Government (TFG) (and by control I mean that the TFG controlled only those parts of the capitol of Mogadishu where African Union peacekeepers from Uganda and Burundi were stationed, an extremely limited geography).  However, Ethiopian forces soon became the target of an insurgency campaign from Islamist forces reconstituted under the title “Al Shabaab,” or “The Youth.”  Al Shabaab was successful in harassing Ethiopian soldiers and supply lines, eventually forcing Ethiopia to withdraw. 

In 2011, Kenya invaded Somalia in response to a spate of kidnappings along the Indian Ocean coast at hotels near the Kenya – Somalia border.  Because the TFG in Somalia was unable to exert any pressure against Al Shabaab outside of Mogadishu (or frankly even within Mogadishu), Kenya was forced to act to protect its tourism industry.  Shortly after Kenya’s invasion, the African Union peacekeepers launched an offensive against Al Shabaab forces in Mogadishu and then Ethiopia once again invaded.  A three-pronged assault seems to be having the desired effect of weakening Al Shabaab and driving it from Mogadishu and from Al Shabaab stronghold of Baidoa.   While neither Kenya nor Ethiopia have specifically invoked R2P as the justification for their interventions, they have used language consistent with the R2P doctrine, just as the US and NATO did with Uganda and Libya. 

In theory, African states could invoke R2P and intervene in their neighboring states as was done in Somalia by Kenya and Ethiopia.  However, in the case of the LRA, the only forces that ever pursued Kony and the LRA are Uganda’s army and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the rebel movement in Sudan that has emerged as the governing party of South Sudan.  Since these forces were also the immediate targets of the LRA, they could not be accused of acting in an altruistic manner.  In Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia are also acting out of their own self-interests and not on the basis of R2P doctrine although they use R2P language to support their invasions.  R2P is not about protecting one’s own security (that’s the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive action), instead R2P is about protecting the security of the citizens of the nation in which the intervention takes place.  So, the example of Somalia is an example of an “African solution to African problems,” but it is not R2P; Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s interventions have also been highly criticized because the two countries are acting in their own self-interest and not in the interest of Somalis. 

This I think is the real fear with R2P as a doctrine for militarized peace-making: countries could invoke R2P when they are serving their own self-interests.  For example, in Libya NATO could be accused of acting to protect oil supplies instead of Libyans.  Or, as was done in Iraq after the invasion by the US, the US changed the rhetoric on the reasons for invasion from the threat of weapons of mass destruction to a desire to bring democracy to Iraq.  LRA watchers are afraid that the US’s intervention is the first of many such interventions through the US Army’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), interventions that will supersede African nations’ sovereignty and serve only the US’s interests in the region.  Then R2P would be invoked to provide international cover for the US’s actions.    

So, where does that leave us?  I think that much of the response and critique to Invisible Children is a rejection of the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect.  The simplicity of Invisible Children’s presentation didn’t help their argument, but that’s not the origin of the problem.  I think R2P and the ICC do not have broad support within the countries they are supposed to be protecting.  Instead they are viewed as Western institutions that serve Western interests.  Invisible Children and the “Kony 2012” video are merely the NGO equivalents; serving their own interests while denying agency and sovereignty to those affected.  The “Kony 2012” video has sparked international interest, but the discussion needs to be about the concept of international intervention, such as those proposed under the Responsibility to Protect doctrine; if those interventions are valid then Invisible Children is just guilty of being crass.  If interventions under R2P are not valid, then the “Kony 2012” video should spark a broader conversation about R2P and perhaps create a structure under which militarized peace-making interventions might be acceptable, if ever.

Michael P. Moore, March 18, 2012