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Kony Video Campaign Shakes Up Advocacy World

Joseph Kony of the Lord's Resistance Army (file photo)
Joseph Kony of the Lord's Resistance Army (file photo)
Nico Colombant

The release this month by a U.S. non-profit organization of an Internet video denouncing a Ugandan rebel leader is creating a worldwide conversation and shaking up the world of advocacy.  

Like many other human rights campaigns, the video released by the organization Invisible Children got help from celebrities.

One of them was Angelina Jolie. The Hollywood film actress spoke out against the elusive Lord’s Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony at a recent appearance.

“He is an extraordinarily horrible human being," she said. "His time has come, and it is lovely to see that young people are raising up as well.”

A collective of some of the biggest U.S. media and entertainment personalities used social media to promote the 29-minute video when it was released March 5.  So did high school and college students across the United States and elsewhere.

The Kony video has become the fastest growing ever on the Internet in terms of views.

On Tuesday, it prompted U.S. lawmakers to introduce a resolution calling for increased efforts to boost the number of forces deployed to protect civilians and pursue LRA commanders hiding in Central Africa.

Last year, U.S. President Barack Obama sent 100 U.S. military advisors to help with ongoing efforts against an insurgency which for decades has been abducting children, displacing civilians and mutilating the faces of victims in Central Africa.

An international human rights and development expert at American University in Washington, Lori Handrahan, thinks the Invisible Children campaign is revolutionizing advocacy.  She says other advocates should build new activist communities by using video, social media and celebrities.

“I believe that the professionals who have been working in humanitarian response for decades really need to start to embrace this [social media] element and understand that it is here and it is for the good," said Handrahan.

A long-time advocate against the LRA, Washington-based Michael Poffenberger with the group Resolve, says a video can be very effective in bringing out new human rights activists.

“Even experts get started on these issues somewhere," said Poffenberger. "Most people who have worked on these issues for decades can still point to some transformative experience in their life, whether it is a good teacher or a moment where their eyes were opened to something going on in another part of the world.”

Poffenberger also says this highly polished video is just a hint of what groups like Invisible Children and Resolve are doing.

“I know that there is a big strategy that has gone on behind this effort that will be taking steps to channel that awareness into concrete measures that actually help protect people on the ground who are suffering LRA attacks," he said.

Invisible Children and Resolve have been working together on an online LRA crisis tracker, which includes a map and timeline for current and past LRA attacks.  Most recent attacks have taken place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, while LRA commanders, including Kony, if he is still alive, are believed to be hiding in the Central African Republic.

The stated goal of the video is to bring about Kony’s capture, so that he can be tried at the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Poffenberger also is pushing for more international emphasis on development and social projects in LRA-affected areas.

Lots of the social media commentary spawned by the video has been negative, ranging from criticism of the inadequacies of Western-style justice, to the fact that the much diminished LRA has already been pushed out of Uganda, or that U.S. activists should focus on American problems.

Handrahan, the American University professor, sees a lot of misplaced jealousy in these comments, some of them directed at the movie’s main character, American filmmaker Jason Russell.

“I do not think there is any place for jealousy when we are trying to take down international war criminals," said Handrahan. "I think people who do not understand what Jason Russell and Invisible Children and all the people who are supporting him are trying to do, they need a wake-up call and this is it.”

In one of his rare interviews several years ago, Kony himself said he is innocent, blaming Ugandan troops for atrocities. He also said he lacks the tools to communicate his own message to a worldwide audience.

Experts have described his fighters as highly trained and motivated by long-standing grievances against Uganda’s government for past abuses committed on northern Acholi people.

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