Joseph Kony and the Problem of Enforceable Human Rights
If you’ve been reading anything online in the past 24 hours, you’ve probably noticed that a whole lot of people seemingly just discovered the existence of an organization called Invisible Children.
Some people got excited about their new film about Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army and then some people got concerned about that excitement.
I’m not going to wade into this controversy. There are lots of good resources online that you can read about what Invisible Children does with the money it raises and also about whether they have played a bit fast and loose with the facts in order to make the LRA seem worse than it is.
What I want to write about instead is a second problem that people have raised, specifically about the new film “Kony 2012” The film seems a whole lot like a call for military intervention to capture Joseph Kony and put a stop to the LRA atrocities. This might mean providing military aid to foreign governments that aren’t themselves exactly paragons of human rights observance, and it might mean putting foreign troops on the ground in one or more of the African states where Kony hides out. One thing it seems to mean for sure is an imperialistic Western attitude when it comes to solving the world’s conflicts.
At bottom, there seems to be a general discomfort with the idea that the U.S., for example, should get into the fight against the LRA. And so there’s a fair amount of backlash against the film and against Invisible Children, who have worked with other NGOs to try to convince the Obama administration to do just that. Of course, we should probably also remember that well-meaning liberals jumped all over Rush Limbaugh back in October because he said that the Obama administration shouldn’t be fighting the LRA.
This raises an important question, I think, because it seems pretty clear that Kony and the LRA are human rights violators on a serious scale. If we don’t want the U.S. to help track down and arrest Kony and we don’t like it when someone says that the U.S. shouldn’t be tracking down and arresting Kony, what do we want?
My guess is that we’d like someone else to do it or we want it to be very easy to accomplish.
I say this because I know that we like the idea of human rights and we generally want there to be less suffering in the world. We just don’t want to have to pay in any way to make that happen. We want all conflicts to be resolved by the parties to the conflict or, if we are going to get involved, we want the conflict to be absolutely clear-cut so we can step in on the side of the good against the bad. Or we want to talk in retrospect about how we ought to have done something, even as we know that we’re almost certainly not going to do something in a similar situation in the future.
“Never again” is apparently quite specific. It means we’ll never let Germans systematically exterminate six million Jews. And we’ll never let Rwandan Hutu militias murder eight hundred thousands Tutsis and moderate Hutus again. With other cases, we’ll have to wait and see.
At bottom, this question about Kony and our inability to figure out whether we should get involved or not speaks to one of the central problems that has always faced the creation of a robust international human rights regime, especially for those who really do want to help others but without seeming like thoughtless bullies: Do we want human rights that are actually enforceable, that actually mean something? If so, how do we propose to make them enforceable if not by actually going and arresting human rights abusers?
I don’t mean to suggest that this is an easy question to answer, as I think that every one of these situations will lead to problems (both foreseen and unforeseen) and casualties. Nonetheless, I think it’s a question that we absolutely must start thinking about pretty seriously. If we honestly care about the suffering of others, what are we going to do about it?