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In Search Of Kony: Activism And The North/South Divide


Muna Ndulo is a Professor of Law, Cornell University Law School, and Director of Cornell University’s Institute for African Development. Muna Ndulo is an internationally recognized scholar in the fields of constitution making, governance and institution building, human rights and Foreign Direct Investments.

Tinenenji Banda is a Lecturer of Law, University of Zambia.

(a)   Introduction

 Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 drew both praise and criticism in its efforts to call attention to one of the most brutal war criminals the world has seen. Many critics assailed the documentary for things it did not claim to do.  It did not claim to offer a panacea for the problems of Northern Uganda. Neither did it assert that the arrest of Kony would decisively end the violence and upheaval.  The documentary’s main import was to advocate for the capture of Kony so that he be held accountable for the numerous abuses and atrocities he has inflicted on the people of Northern Uganda.  This is a noble objective on which there should be no disagreement. There should also be no disagreement that the Kony-led atrocities are a scar on our collective conscience and that it is partly through international activism and awareness efforts (of which the Kony 2012 video is but one example) that these atrocities have been unearthed and publicized. There is thus inherent value in investigative documentaries that seek to expose the mammoth suffering created by perpetrators of gross human rights violations. The locus of debate following the release of the video centered not on whether Joseph Kony is an unconscionable criminal—of that there can be no serious debate, but on whether theparadigmoffered by the documentary is an appropriate lens through which this tragedy of vast proportions should be viewed. The video reignited an old debate on the savage/savior mentality that has, for centuries, bedeviled North/South discussion on human rights and democracy.  Those who criticized the video perceived it as a sensational bid to “stir up” western outrage so as to rally the archetypical “savior” to convene on this savage space in some kind of messianic intervention. In this paper we do not comment on the intent of the documentary, but rather on its effect on the broader humanitarian discourse surrounding Kony and the Lord Resistance Army (LRA).  We argue that the North/South relationship will always be problematic because of the historical context in which it developed, and that the stereotypes that are prevalent in Northern societies about Southern societies have often led western researchers to extrapolate anecdotal acts as evidence of general practice. So for example, despite the fact that Idi Amin is an odd figure even to Africans themselves, he continues to be a continuing reference point as to African presidential behavior.  The caricature of African leadership is immortalized in the figures of the excessive leadership of the Mobuto Seseseko’s and Bokassa’s of a bygone era.  Far too little has been made of the exceptional statesmanship of the Massire’s, Chissano’s and the Mogae’s, and while unconstitutional changes of government have become the touchstone of African politics, too little is made of the many successful constitutional changes of government that characterize many African democracies today. These successes are very real, and are often overlooked in favor of sensationalist stories that reinforce the quintessential stereotype of an Africa “run amok”. It should be accepted that neither the North nor the South have clean hands when it comes to the protection of human rights—they all have a chequered past. Following its own atrocities of slave trading, colonialism, environmental degradation, the North has not really earned the moral right to lecture countries of the South on human rights.  Indeed, many protracted humanitarian crisis in Africa have been inflamed and prolonged by outside interests and influences. External interests continue to play a large and sometimes decisive role in suppressing and sustaining conflicts in the competition for oil, diamonds and other natural resources[1]. There is a however a grave danger in letting these uncomfortable realities  undermine the promotion of human rights and the campaign to end impunity for human rights violations. That there is a crisis of governance in several African states is undeniable. And the gross abuses, violations and excesses of the Bashir and Mugabe regimes, among others, can certainly not be condoned. Despite the compelling evidence of human rights violations in their respective countries, these African leaders make the preposterous claim that the vehement criticism levelled against their regimes are western projects.  To this there is clearly no merit. We take the view that the promotion of human rights calls for the broadening of global consensus supporting democratic ideals and respect for human dignity. We argue that despite the tensions that have arisen between the North and the South due to the sullied historical context, collaboration –if properly structured– is possible and has happened successfully in the past.  Indeed, in view of the numerous grave human rights violations that are occurring virtually unchecked around the world, there is little alternative to continued cooperation in the promotion of human rights between the North and the South.  However the real focus should be on the victims of these atrocities and not on ideological battles that serve only to benefit the perpetrators of human rights violations. In the section that follows, we discuss the need for meaningful North/South collaboration in the promotion of human rights. Before we do that however we first examine the historical context in which North/South relations are embedded and affect the way in which criticism from the north is contextualized.

(b) The Historical Context of North/ South Relations

A recurring diatribe against western human rights activists is that they adhere to a double standard.  Colonial rule, support for dictators during the cold war by both blocks, failure to condemn violations in countries of strategic important to the West (South Arabia and Equatorial Guinea for instance) are but some examples. The failure to lead by example on detentions and torture during the war on terror[2] is another. And although there have been vigorous debates about the legality of the extraordinary rendition and secrete detention program, there has not been an equally, vigorous and sustained campaign against the governments involved in the program.  Keyan Tomaseli observed for example that: “my seminar students, many of them mature activists, astonished me by directing their activism towards Palestine, Nicaragua, anti-apartheid movement, and so on.  None was engaged in challenging repression at home[3]”. Another source of conflict is the perception that cultural differences are not respected.  Northern NGOs are often accused of lacking an appropriate understanding of cultural contexts.  Take the discourse on genital mutilation as an example. The fact that African governments have passed legislation prohibiting the practice, and the fact that many of these governments are grappling with the issue of how to change societal attitudes on the practice is all too often ignored. Instead, the debate focuses on emphasizing the primitiveness and inhumanity of the custom, thereby unnecessarily driving African societies into defensive postures about the legitimacy of African culture. We believe that it is possible to criticize a society without dehumanizing it. Constructive criticism is one which recognizes and understands the economic and social conditions that underpin societal ills, instead of invariably resorting to simplistic backend condemnation of, for example, African customary law as the root of all evils with respect to women’s rights[4]. Similarly in the particular discourse at hand, a humanitarian discourse which begins and ends with the capture of Kony and ignores thecauses of the proliferation of rebel movements is inchoate. After Kony is captured (which indeed he should be), then what? The more pertinent issue is why a movement like Kony’s was able to flourish and multiply. What fuels extremism and how can it be contained and suppressed? And while it can credibly be argued that these broader, normative questions are beyond the scope of Kony 2012, we advocate that the humanitarian discourse on Kony should shift from a fixation with his capture, to a deeper and more meaningful conversation on what it is that allows offenders like Kony to thrive. (c)   The context for a successful international collaboration on the Promotion of Human Rights Many view Global human rights campaigns as emanating from the North without proper engagement with local NGOs in the South. The thematic schemes of such campaigns are defined in the North and Southern NGOs are enlisted after the fact. What is in fact needed is meaningful collaboration between Northern and Southern NGOs.  Northern Ngo’s can help promote human rights and ensure that human rights standards are being articulated, provide requisite expertise and resources for the promotion of human rights and help in capacity building,  knowledge networking and the sharing of best practices.  This includes developing ways and means to contribute to the shaping of a policy framework for democracy assistance and promotion of human rights at the inter-governmental level.[5]  As Phil Harris observes: NGOs have five major roles to play: (a) they are organizations working directly in the field with the problems of “grassroots” communities and their development prospects; (b) they can act as go-betweens, transforming official government policies into concrete action at the local levels; (c) they can often act as surrogates for government in areas where either the government is inert or the local community is reluctant to recognize the authority of government; (d) they are catalysts for action, putting new issues on the public agenda and pressuring governments to take action; they can be instruments for identifying common issues and strategies that cut across South-North divisions, and creating mechanisms for joint action[6].  But what they do and how they do it is crucial as to how their action will be perceived and subsequently received. The international community should however, remain mindful of the need for inter-regional cultural dialogues that provides an ethical underpinning for an ever more inter-dependent, and increasingly vulnerable world community.  In its support for the promotion of human rights, the North should refrain from being solely prescriptive, and imposing solutions without due regard to local conditions.  International NGO discourse in the south has for far too long  been characterized by the simplistic “savior/savage” dichotomy which ignores many of the complex realities that pervade North/South relations and all too often presents African countries as failed states, with the latest upheaval constituting yet another round in the ever continuing series of the “rumble in the jungle”. The portrayal of Africa as a monolithic unit in which there are no divergences or nuances is inaccurate and out of touch with prevailing realities. Northern Activists must make every effort to acquire local knowledge and demonstrate the capacity to operate with cross-cultural awareness in order to manage the dynamics of difference and adapt to diversity and the cultural context of the communities they serve. It should not be forgotten that local communities have the best understanding of the culture, history and conditions of their communities and as such they are in the best position to create solutions to address the root cause of injustice and inequality in their own communities. Cooperation between the North/South should be based on constructive dialogue and mutual respect, not on acrimonious confrontation.  When violations are identified, they must be presented in a dispassionate, objective, principled manner that is more likely to win support from the local community. To aid legitimacy, the North must be mindful that they must lead this fight by example.  Condemnation of the excesses of the war on terror must be as loud as the condemnations of Kony and Bashir. Only to the extent that the northern countries set a positive example for the construction of human rights within the framework of a world community united in the promotion of human rights regardless of the identity of the violator, will human rights campaigns garner universal appeal. And although it is important that the promotion of human rights should essentially be driven by local stakeholders, international actors can and do play an important role in the process.[7]  Often, local stakeholders lack capacity and space to operate in highly authoritarian regimes. In such cases, international collaboration empowers local NGOs by  offering protection from harassment. In their work, international activists should also be mindful of the work of local experts.  The value of the expert’s comparative experience is widely acknowledged in other contexts.[8]  Access to comparative experience is particularly useful as it provides a wide range of information on possible options and lessons on what works and what does not work in terms of strategies for the promotion of human rights. Conclusions To have meaningful collaboration, both the north and the South while vigorously promoting human rights and fighting to end impunity, must understand, engage and critique the assumptions on culture, conditions and programs of movements in the South. The engagement should address the stereotypes each has of the other that tend to undermine collaboration.  The North should set aside patronizing attitudes of the South, and the South must seek to urgently address their complete financial dependency on the North for funding as this external dependency is often used by authoritarian regimes to delegitimize their work.  There is a need to develop global solidarity in which sympathetic western activists take more seriously the ideas and arguments of progressive South activists. It is evident that North/South interactions have been dysfunctional, and if any lessons have been learned from this dysfunctional interface, it is that Africa cannot be “saved” by the west; indeed this idea of a “savior” is self-defeating and immobilizing. Africa must create its own culture of accountability, and the idea that Africa needs to be jolted into self-awareness by the better educated conscience of its western counterpart is flawed and discredited.


* Muna Ndulo, LLB (Zambia), LLM (Harvard) D.Phil. (Oxford), Professor of Law, Cornell University Law School, and Director, Cornell University’s Institute for African Development ** Tinenenji Banda, LLB (Cape Town), LLM (Cornell), JSD Candidate (Cornell), Lecturer of Law, University of Zambia [1] U.N.GAOR, GA. Res.175, 55th session, at U.N. Doc. A/RES/55/56 (2001)
[2] See Margaret L. Satherthwaite, The Story of I-Masri v. Tenet: Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in the War on Terror in DEENA.R. HARWITZ, MARGARET L. SATHERTHWAITE and DOUGLAS FOUD, HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCACY STORIES, (2009).
[3] The Internationalization of Struggle and the Need for Global Solidarity, WACC Communications, http:www.waccglobal.oeg/en/19963-alternative-communications-networks/968(last visited September 3, 2012)
[4] For an attempt to explain this further see: Muna Ndulo, African Customary Law, Customs, and Women’s Rights, INDIANA JOURNAL OF GLOBAL LEGAL STUDIES, Winter 2011, Vol. 18, p.87.
[5]See United Nations Center for Human rights and Elections, A Handbook on the legal, Technical and Human Rights Aspects of Elections, New York, 1992.  See also Report of the secretary-General to the General assembly at its 46 Session (A/46/609/corr/.1 and Add. 1-2.
[6] Phil Harris, Globalization, Civil Society and Communication,  WACC, (last visited, 9/3/2012)
[8] G. Chidyausiku, speaking in the context of constitution making, stated:  “A home grown constitution can and needs to be enriched by drawing on the experiences of other countries.  Indeed there is no country in the modern world including Zimbabwe that can escape the imperative of a global society.”  See G. Chidyauskiu, Welcome Remarks, International Democratic Constitution, Nov. 17, 1999.            

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