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Scott Ross: Kony2013

March 4, 2013

One year later, the LRA leader is still at large—but the controversial viral video has changed America’s relationship to the International Criminal Court.

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Image from Flickr via Roel Wijnants

By Scott Ross

Tomorrow will mark a year since the viral video Kony 2012, the online film that shed light on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in central Africa and called for the capture of its leader, Joseph Kony, swept the Internet, but we are still feeling its effects. Invisible Children, the San Diego-based group behind the film, has had its share of difficulties in the past year. After a furious backlash from scholars and aid workers and a dismal turn-out to its “Cover the Night” events last April, Invisible Children has been slowly rebuilding. The group hosted a massive summit in Washington, DC, that drew ten thousand participants and speakers from LRA-affected communities, but continued to catch flak when its self-imposed deadline of December 31, 2012 passed without progress regarding Kony’s capture.

But on January 1, 2013, in the immediate aftermath of the tumultuous fiscal cliff vote, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass the Department of State Rewards Program Update and Technical Corrections Act of 2012. The bill would expand Rewards for Justice, a program that offers monetary rewards for information about criminals the State Department deems important, which could include LRA leader Joseph Kony and his top commanders. Kony and his followers are thought to be hiding in remote areas between the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan.

While many decried the video’s failure to lead to Kony’s capture, it did galvanize political action in the U.S.

Rewards for Justice has offered monetary rewards for information about alleged terrorists, drug traffickers, cyber criminals, members of organized crime, and international war criminals. The bill that Congress passed would allow the State Department to include anyone under indictment from an international tribunal on the list of wanted suspects. Among those tribunals is the International Criminal Court (ICC), which indicted Kony in 2005. According to Michael Poffenberger, the executive director of Resolve, a Washington-based anti-LRA advocacy organization, the legislation will allow the State Department to offer up to $5 million for information about Kony. “There are actors in that area–including poachers, militia groups, nomadic herders, and Kony’s deputies themselves–who could be positioned to take advantage of [the reward],” said Poffenberger.

The bill’s support came largely from a wave of grassroots lobbying in the aftermath of Kony 2012. While many decried the video’s failure to lead to Kony’s capture, it did galvanize political action in the U.S. I have worked with Resolve to set up local lobby meetings in the Phoenix area since 2008, but after Kony 2012 I was contacted by a number of people who wanted to take action. I eventually led two meetings–one with Congressional staff and one with my former Congressman–where we encouraged continued support for civilian protection programs and urged passage of the Rewards for Justice bill. Hundreds of meetings like this took place across the country throughout 2012, asking members of Congress to increase funding for civilian protection programs in central Africa, reaffirm support for the deployment of military advisers to the region, and expand the Rewards for Justice program. Kony is still at large, but with the passage of this latest bill and its signing into law by President Obama on January 14th, all of Kony 2012’s intermediate goals have been achieved in some way. And the new law may have a broader impact, beyond Kony and Invisible Children.

The United States and the ICC have a checkered past. The U.S. still has not ratified the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the Court in 2002, due to conservative distrust of international bodies and fears of U.S. service members being indicted. When the Statute was drafted in 1998, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) stated that the treaty would be “dead on arrival” in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and President Clinton declined to submit the treaty to the Senate for a ratification vote. John Bolton, U.N. Ambassador under President George W. Bush, said the highlight of his term was when he “un-signed” the Statute, removing the U.S. from the list of signatory states. Only recently has the U.S. taken steps to actively support the ICC, voting in the United Nations Security Council to send the Libya situation to the Court in 2011, and now deciding to include the Court’s indictments in the rewards program.

Not only is the expansion of the Rewards for Justice program the first legislative action directly supportive of the ICC, it passed with Republican support.

The rewards program vote could signal a shift in the GOP’s perceptions of the Court. Beyond Senate Republicans’ longstanding efforts to keep the U.S. out of the ICC’s founding treaty, Congress passed the American Service-Members’ Protection Act in 2002 (ASPA), allowing the White House to withhold military assistance from countries that joined the Court and threatening the use of force to rescue U.S. personnel arrested for trial at the Court. Not only is the expansion of the Rewards for Justice program the first legislative action directly supportive of the ICC, it passed with Republican support. Many have speculated that Invisible Children’s strong evangelical roots may have something to do with this. Indeed, one of the major supporters of the Rewards for Justice bill was Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), a far-right conservative voice who voted for the ASPA in 2002.

The one hundred U.S. Special Forces operatives in central Africa and the NATO efforts in Libya both highlight what appears to be a growing closeness between the U.S. and the ICC. While the Senate is no closer to ratifying the Rome Statute, for practical purposes it may not have to. The United States is finally coming to support the concept of a global court once again, albeit from the outside.

If the ICC were to set its sights on Israel or another U.S. ally, support would likely vanish. Without the binding agreement of an international treaty, this partnership could render ICC actions dependent on U.S. approval.

There are still potential pitfalls. The closer the U.S. comes to supporting the ICC from the outside, the further it may move from ever formally joining the Court. If the White House can achieve all of its foreign policy goals through indirect support, there is less incentive for ratification. Such a relationship, grounded in advantageous politics, means that if the ICC were to set its sights on Israel or another U.S. ally, support would likely vanish. Without the binding agreement of an international treaty, this partnership could render ICC actions dependent on U.S. approval. If U.S.-ICC relations stay this way, Mark Kersten argues that we should be worried. A graduate student at the London School of Economics and the founder of the Justice in Conflict website, Kersten has said that “political selectivity could become a structural element of the ICC’s functioning” if the U.S. does not join the Court officially. The ICC may end up only investigating less controversial countries, fearing that the U.S. might withdraw support amid investigations of its allies. While the ICC was able to establish itself over the past decade despite U.S. opposition, cooptation by Washington could prove more difficult to prevent. Pushing forward with investigations of situations of mass atrocity were possible without U.S. support, but attempts to investigate NATO activity in Libya or open cases in Palestine or Afghanistan would quickly meet political and financial obstacles that could prove insurmountable. Formal membership would at least place U.S. actions before the entire assembly and require some sacrifice from the U.S. that has so far been lacking.

Additionally, many proponents of the Court still believe that U.S. involvement is crucial to the Court’s success. If the U.S. were party to the treaty, the Court would wield more political leverage around the world—and U.S. funding could help the Court deal with recent difficulties. The current relationship with the Court renders all of this support conditional on U.S. desires.

Regardless of the ultimate effects of U.S.-ICC relations, it appears that the wave of grassroots organizing sparked by Kony 2012 has achieved some unexpected results. The video may have deserved some of the criticism it received regarding its simplified portrayal of the crisis and its “white savior” approach to solving it, but the campaign has demonstrated that a YouTube video can help produce real change, and that American youth can be moved to do more than just sign online petitions. In early 2012 there was little pressure on regional governments to help capture Kony, and the U.S. State Department was on the record that U.S. assistance would last “months, not years.” Thanks in large part to Invisible Children, the United States is taking increased, sustained action to help stop Joseph Kony and his rebels, and with this law the U.S. is strengthening its support for international justice as a whole. What remains to be seen is whether this is a permanent step forward for international justice, or subject to the ever-changing winds of politics.

Scott Ross is an M.A. student in African Studies at Yale University, where he plans to write his thesis on radio’s role in the LRA conflict. He started an Invisible Children-affiliated student organization at Arizona State University, where he studied human rights, history, and education. He blogs at Backslash Scott and tweets at @scootles7.

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