Posts tagged ‘lords resistance army’

March 7, 2012

Can the United Nations Harness #KONY2012’s Energy?

If you follow a single human rights, civilian protection, or international development advocate on Facebook or Twitter by now, you’ve been awash in the blitz that is Invisible Children’s latest piece. The hashtags #stopkony and #kony2012 have taken over the trending topics in the United States, as thousands of college students have their eyes opened to the atrocities performed in the Great Lakes region by the Lord’s Resistance Army.

As is to be expected when a spotlight is shined on an area many have already been focused on, there has been some major pushback on the simplified narrative Invisible Children provides, namely that not a single person actually affected by the Lord’s Resistance Army was interviewed for the piece, nor are actual means of producing a solution included in the film. As Laura Seay so eloquently put it on Twitter today, “the awareness of American college students is NOT a necessary condition for conflict resolution in Africa.” Longer, and excellent in substance, critiques have been penned by Dan Solomon at Securing Rights and Mark Kernsten at Justice in Conflict.

All of their judgments are extremely on point when examining the dissatisfaction that comes with the fact that the sole ask of the viewers of the video is to launch a major flyer posting effort to spread even more awareness. But you’d be hard pressed to deny the marketing strategy put in place by Invisible Children is impressive in its scope and speed. The name “Joseph Kony” is soon to become much more prevalent on many people’s lips. The question that many have, however, is “So what?” How does it matter that Kony is now as infamous among people who haven’t been paying attention this whole time as among people who have? And how does IC’s claim that “The problem is that 99% of the world doesn’t know who he is” solve the actual problems of the civilians that the LRA terrorizes? The answer to that depends on how much you believe that awareness can fully transition into action.

The power of narrative in driving solutions to conflicts is unavoidable, as is the notability of its absence. For years, the government of Sri Lanka fought against the freedom fighters cum terrorist group known as the Tamil Tigers. The conflict came to a head in 2008, with the Sri Lankan government launching an all-out offensive against the Tigers, resulting in what a UN panel of experts has since called war crimes perpetrated by both sides. The United Nations and the world as a whole were silent at the time, partially for domestic concerns, partially because of the power that the global war on terrorism narrative still possessed, and partly due to uncertainty on the nature of the conflict. In the end, there was no inspiring video to draw attention to the issue, no major push for its cease. Most people didn’t hear of the conflict until it ended, and even now, many couldn’t tell you that human rights abuses occurred at all off the coast of India.

The United Nations is belatedly attempting to bring about some form of justice on the Sri Lankan government. A small uproar resulted in the removal of Sri Lankan Major General Shavendra Silva, himself accused of allowing war crimes to be committed by soldiers under his command, from an advisory panel on reimbursement of peacekeeping contributing countries. The United States has also drafted a resolution to put before the Human Rights Council, calling out the lack of progress the government of Sri Lanka has made in holding human rights abusers accountable. All of this is post-facto guilt soothing, however. The international community didn’t move swiftly, or at all, to take any measure of punitive action against Sri Lanka at the time.

The silence surrounding Sri Lanka as it unfolded made it extremely difficult to muster public outrage or pressure on domestic governments to take action against atrocities as they occur. This in turn allows for a “complete disinterest from the UN at key moments”, as Vanessa Parra put it. In his post at The Atlantic on inconsistency in intervention, Joshua Foust implies that the ability for some crises to better mobilize public relations blitzes over others shouldn’t be the basis for policy-development. While this is true, these blitzes do at least bring the issue in question to the forefront of collective consciousness, where actions may be taken to help solutions develop, and as Solomon described provides a base for communities to organize around.

So how can these communities organize in a way that actually brings about positive change? I, for one, would like to see more engagement between these groups and the United Nations. The United Nations as an overarching institution, mostly via the Secretariat and the Secretary-General, is often ahead of its Member States when it comes to human rights protection and atrocities prevention. As just one example, see the Secretary-General’s impassioned defense of the rights of the LGBT community at the current session of the UN Human Rights Council. Compare and contrast his speech with the unwillingness of the Organization of the Islamic Conference to recognize the importance of the issue, staging a walkout of the debate.

In attempting to promote rights, the United Nations walks a careful balance between advocating positions counter to those of a minority of its dues-paying members and earning enough consternation from those states that it affects the UN’s programmatic work through withholding of funding or other withdrawals from participation. So the question becomes how does the UN as an institution, in the face of potential disagreement from Member-States, harness the civilian energy that is present in some cases? And to what extent is this energy transferable between high-profile and low-profile issues? I’m an expert on neither civilian protection nor advocacy organization, but I have to find that the United Nations would better serve if it found methods to achieve these aims. The greatest effort I’ve seen thus far is the partnership between the UN and the campaigns of the UN Foundation*, though a greater programmatic component to the bond between the two would be encouraged, along with a greater sense of agency by the United Nations itself in pushing the civilian/IGO link.

A method for joining advocacy and action that is underutilized, in my opinion, is the ability of non-governmental organizations to gain consultative membership in the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Thousands of NGOs currently take part in ECOSOC’s Plenary sessions to advise resolutions as they develop, but the relationship should be more of a two-way street. Rather than merely advocating for their unique issues, the NGO members of ECOSOC should be constantly receiving, and disseminating to their own members, news from the Secretariat about how the UN is making a difference in their particular issue of note, and how help can be provided. The NGOs can then turn their members to bear on leveraging that information in lobbying domestic governments and pressing for escalation to the General Assembly and Security Council.

As it specifically relates to the Great Lakes region, the potentiality of the UN bandwagoning on the viral success of the Invisible Children project is apparent. Outreach to college campuses on how to actually provide humanitarian relief and urge the US government to do more in cooperation with the missions on the ground in the region should be ramped up immediately, by the UN’s Office of Public Affairs, the UN Foundation, and other NGOs that work directly with United Nations programmatic components. To me, the whole #Kony2012 imbroglio boils down to that I can’t fault excited college students for wanting to spread awareness of issues that don’t dominate headlines. What I can fault is organizations doing it in a heavy-handed manner with no real recourse for the peoples affected. Rather than complaining about the ineffectiveness of the campaign, we should be pushing for ways to bridge the gap between intentions and outcomes.

The United Nations could serve as a mechanism for the passion of the young advocates out there that clearly exists to find ways to translate that enthusiasm into action. The UN acts as a force multiplier when it comes to the use of force, as the Obama Administration would do well to remember when it comes to the Great Lakes, so why not when it comes to channeling advocacy and passion that clearly is there to be tapped? Without a balance of the two, advocacy and action, we find ourselves with silent atrocities such as in Sri Lanka, or instances in the DRC where suddenly everyone is aware of a problem with no viable method of affecting the situation.

(*Full disclosure: I served briefly as an intern with the United Nations Foundation, and still have many friends there.)

October 14, 2011

In Great Lakes deployment, US should look to support UN

The Twittersphere is all abuzz this afternoon as word broke that the Obama Administration has informed Congress that it is sending roughly 100 U.S. troops to the Great Lakes region to help end the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army. In a letter to the Speaker of the House and President Pro-Tempore of the Senate, President Obama laid out the mission of these forces:

In furtherance of the Congress’s stated policy, I have authorized a small number of combat-equipped U.S. forces to deploy to central Africa to provide assistance to regional forces that are working toward the removal of Joseph Kony from the battlefield. I believe that deploying these U.S. Armed Forces furthers U.S. national security interests and foreign policy and will be a significant contribution toward counter-LRA efforts in central Africa.

On October 12, the initial team of U.S. military personnel with appropriate combat equipment deployed to Uganda. During the next month, additional forces will deploy, including a second combat-equipped team and associated headquarters, communications, and logistics personnel. The total number of U.S. military personnel deploying for this mission is approximately 100. These forces will act as advisors to partner forces that have the goal of removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA. Our forces will provide information, advice, and assistance to select partner nation forces. Subject to the approval of each respective host nation, elements of these U.S. forces will deploy into Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The support provided by U.S. forces will enhance regional efforts against the LRA. However, although the U.S. forces are combat-equipped, they will only be providing information, advice, and assistance to partner nation forces, and they will not themselves engage LRA forces unless necessary for self-defense. All appropriate precautions have been taken to ensure the safety of U.S. military personnel during their deployment.

The bloggers of the world quickly sprung into action, providing the curious masses, many of whom had no idea why anything with “Lord” in it could be such a bad thing, with a year’s worth of reading on the background of the LRA, and the history of calls for intervention in the region to help take it down and the opposing arguments. While the initial confusion over the move has calmed down, as sending off military advisors in this fashion is relatively common, there is still no consensus on how effective these troops will be in lessening the threat of the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA most certainly qualifies as the worst of the armed groups that plague the African continent, with their atrocities putting the Janjaweed and FDLR to shame in sheer brazenness. Their leader Joseph Kony has been indicted by the International Criminal Court over his actions in Uganda, with Kony managing to evade arrest for decades now.

What has me curious, though, is determining if and how these U.S. advisors will interact with the UN peacekeeping missions currently on the ground. Of the four states listed in the President’s letter, two of them, the DRC and South Sudan, have United Nations blue helmets deployed inside their borders. The United Nations Mission to South Sudan was approved in July of this year, to aid in supporting the development of the soon-to-be newest member of the UN help tamp down on the fighting in the border region between the newly separated states of Sudan and South Sudan. The LRA has been taken its rape and pillage tour through the area for years, leading the Security Council to include language about the force in the authorizing resolution, S/RES/1996, particularly in Operative Clause 15:

15. Calls upon UNMISS to coordinate with the Government of the Republic of South Sudan and participate in regional coordination and information mechanisms to improve protection of civilians and support disarmament, demobilization and reintegration efforts in light of the attacks by the LRA in the Republic of South Sudan and requests the Secretary General to include in his UNMISS trimesterly reports a summary of cooperation and information sharing between UNMISS, the African Union/United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID), the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), and regional and international partners in addressing the LRA threats;

The  peacekeeping mission operative in the DRC, MONUSCO, which took over for MONUC in June of this year is the largest peacekeeping force that the UN has ever put together. Helping keep the peace in the largest country in Africa has proved to be a substantial challenge in the years after the Great African War, enough so that over 20,000 blue helmets have been authorized to take part in the most recent mission. Despite the size of the mission, the size of the state, twice that of France, has proved to be much more advantageous to Joseph Kony’s crew, granting them the ability to slip in and out of the country without much to-do, allowing them to continue to spread terror through the entirety of the region.

Both missions are enacted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, and call for the use of any means necessary to enact their mandates, the phrase that authorizes the use of force. The fact that both mandates specifically call out the LRA as a threat to international peace and security gives a strong indication of just how seriously the UN and US take the LRA, despite being only approximately 250 individuals in strength.

So with the enormity of the combined missions, which are called upon to coordinate between themselves when it comes to the LRA in SC/Res/1925, the infusion of 100 US advisors could be crucial. Who these advisors will be answering to and how precisely they’ll serve the region isn’t exactly clear from this letter. It’s obvious that they won’t be serving under anyone but a U.S. military officer, but I wonder what mechanisms they’ll have in place to determine which of the several host governments they’ll be offering their expertise to will take precedence. The U.S. has, for the record sent forces to both missions: precisely one military advisor to take MONUSCO and 4 police officers to UNMISS.

The United Nations isn’t mentioned anywhere in the President’s letter, so it doesn’t seem to have been on the mind of whomever in the White House drafted it. It should be on their mind, though. The UNMISS and MONUSCO both have large amounts of forces dedicated to keeping the peace and protecting civilians, particularly against the LRA, and the addition of U.S. logistical help would be a boon to the strapped missions. Also, as Laura Seay points out, the LRA operates in some of the least-governed areas of the world’s weakest states. To have the UN’s support in such places in someways would be better than having that of the host-governments.

The Obama Administration has made working multilaterally one of the lynchpins of their foreign policy, particularly through international institutions, and now would be an ideal time to continue that trend. I’m not advocating integrating these U.S. troops into the missions, but rather sharing information and capabilities when possible. The UNSC approval granted to the missions would also provide a greater amount of legitimacy to the U.S. deployment. It’s clear that the U.S. has arranged for this beforehand with the involved local governments, but coordinating with the UN would bolster the effectiveness of the UN missions and serve as a way to share information and ability with the four states in question. Ignoring the UN’s presence in the region at best would make the overall mission more difficult, at worst add to confusion at an unfortunate time.