Kony is Africa’s most notorious militia leader. During a decade-long campaign of intimidation in northern Uganda, Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) kidnapped tens of thousands of children and youth for use as soldiers and sex slaves. The conflict displaced more than a million people into camps. Kony and his commanders were eventually chased into the ungoverned border region between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic (CAR) and South Sudan. The LRA is now diminished and on the run. But it still conducted more than 300 attacks last year, generating fear and instability far beyond its numbers.
The effort to bring Kony to justice is broad. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has indicted him for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama made the pursuit of Kony a priority. In 2010, the U.S. Congress passed the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, urging the apprehension of LRA leaders and the protection of civilians. On the ground, regional armies are cooperating with United Nations peacekeepers and US special forces to corner Kony and his lieutenants.
The effort to capture or kill Kony is one of the least controversial, most thoroughly multilateral, objectives in the world. But that has not prevented a few people from trying to stir controversy.
Some criticism has been directed against Invisible Children, an organization that can speak in its own defense (and has). But a broader case is also being made against the global campaign to stop Kony. The crimes of the LRA, it is argued, have been exaggerated and the attention they are receiving is disproportionate.
It is probably true (thank goodness) that Kony’s greatest crimes are in the past. He is no longer active in Uganda, where even his northern tribal allies turned against him. Attacks in eastern Congo and southern CAR are mainly raids for supplies instead of mass atrocities. But this is precisely because the LRA is under constant pressure. When Kony attempts to gather his forces – as he did in September in CAR – his Ugandan army pursuers are quickly on top of him. Obama has deployed more than 80 special operations forces in the region to help coordinate these operations.
Even a diminished Kony is dangerous. And the evil of the man himself can scarcely be exaggerated. In Uganda, I’ve met former LRA child soldiers who were forced to kill their own parents and neighbors in order to sever their ties to community and sympathy. I met a young man who looked at Kony without permission and had his eye removed in punishment. In January, I met two girls in the DRC who had recently escaped from LRA captivity. They had been used as sex slaves and pack animals – punished, when they tried to escape, by having melted plastic poured on their shoulders. All Kony’s victims – past and present – deserve to see justice done.
Kony’s crimes can’t be denied. But some critics of the anti-Kony campaign contend that the attention he is receiving is disproportionate. Aren’t there more deaths, for example, in Syria?
Government attacks on Syrian citizens deserve urgent attention. But we should reject the idea that empathy is a zero-sum game. There are organizations that focus on the victims of sex trafficking in India, or on children dying of malaria in Nigeria, or on Kony’s victims in central Africa. The activism of these groups is not discredited because violence spikes in other places.
People are interested in Kony’s fate because of the scale of his past crimes and the vividness of his evil. But the LRA problem also attracts attention because a resolution is within reach. Kony is a cult-like figure, with a mystical hold over his followers. Removing him from the scene would likely result in the collapse of the LRA as an organized group. The net around Kony, with American help, is tightening. Even a little additional effort might make all the difference. The LRA may not be the biggest problem in the world, but it is a serious problem on the verge of solution.
The criticism is sometimes made of advocacy groups – on Darfur, or conflict minerals, or the LRA – that they oversimplify complex issues. This charge is often leveled by foreign policy experts who multiply complexity for a living. One gets the impression they would rather ignore meddling idealists and write their white papers in peace. But experts and advocates both have important roles. The views of experts should inform the policies of public officials. But advocates help to push officials toward decision and action. When I was in government, strong outside advocacy made my job as an internal advocate easier. It revealed a constituency for urgency.
The pursuit of Kony is urgent. The effort is both bipartisan and multilateral. And the hunt is closing in.