Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Discussion Group: Kony 2012

At this month's discussion group we looked at the Kony 2012 campaign.

The film: Kony 2012 was created by Invisible Children, Inc. and released on 5 March. The purpose of the film is to promote Invisible Children's 'Stop Kony' campaign which seeks to make Ugandan war criminal, Joseph Kony, globally known to assist in his arrest. In the film the acts of Joseph Kony are explained through filmmaker Jason Russell's explanation to his son. The film also features Jacob Acaye, whose brother was killed by Kony. In the film Jason Russell promises Jacob that he will do everything possible to 'stop Kony'. The film is approximately 30 minutes and it has received over 100 million views. Following criticisms of the film, Invisible Children Inc. released a sequel video, 'Kony 2012: Beyond Famous' on 5 April. It received much less interest, with only 1.7million views in its first two weeks.

Joseph Kony: Kony is the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). He claims to be a spokesperson of God and a spirit medium. The LRA formed over 26 years ago and according to the film, in that time it has kidnapped over 30,000 children, many of which have been subjected to appalling crimes including rape and mutilation. Initially the LRA claimed it was a resistance movement against the central Ugandan government who were viewed as privileging southern Ugandan ethnic groups at the expense of northern ethnic groups. The LRA has been classified as a Christian militant group although many commentators argue that it no longer has any ideology or political programme.  

The 'Stop Kony' campaign: The purpose of the movie is to raise global awareness of Kony to assist in generating support for foreign military involvement in his capture, such as preventing the cancellation of a US advisory group mission that was deployed by President Obama to assist the Ugandan military. The film suggests that people go to the Invisible Children, Inc. website and send emails to 40 influential people, including 20 'celebrity culture makers' and 12 policymakers. The campaign also involves the 'Cover the Night' action which took place on 20 April. To raise awareness of Kony, the film advocated plastering campaign materials across cities around the world on 20 April. Invisible Children offer posters online and sell action kits that include buttons, posters, bracelets and stickers. 

Responses: 'Cover the Night' was widely perceived to be a failure. Across the globe the anticipated crowds did not come out, leaving many cities 'unplastered'. The LRA purportedly released a statement that condemned the film as 'a cheap and banal panic act of mass trickery to make the unsuspecting peoples of the world complicit in the US rogue and murderous activities in central Africa'. Meanwhile, two US senators put forth a resolution on 21 March condemning Kony and backing the efforts of a combined central African military force to capture Kony. It received bipartisan support from 37 senators. On 23 March the African Union announced that it would send a brigade of 5000 troops from central African countries where Kony is believed to be active, namely Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This force is led by the Ugandan military and has the backing of the US. It is planned to exist until Kony is captured.

Support: Many influential and high-profile people and organisations have supported the film, including Luis Moreno Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor at the ICC; Abou Moussa, Special Representative and Head of the UN Regional Office for Central Africa; Anthony Lake, Executive Director of UNICEF; and Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Support for the film has generally centered on the high degree of public interest that the film sparked. 

Criticisms: The film received many criticisms. It was argued to be highly simplistic in that it barely mentioned that Kony and his forces, now much reduced in numbers, are no longer in Uganda. Nor did the film highlight the Ugandan military's earlier use of child soldiers during conflict with the LRA. The film's focus on the capture of one person as a solution to this conflict was also criticized. The film also did not highlight the importance of a Ugandan-led solution in ensuring the longevity of any solution. It was argued to unfairly represent Uganda, given that the country is no longer in a state of conflict. Alex de Waal also argued the campaign glorified Kony, rather than presenting him as a "common criminal and failed provincial politician". The finances of Invisible Children Inc. have also been the subject of controversy, given that they received funding from anti-gay Christian groups.

Possible impacts: The 'Stop Kony' campaign clearly sparked a lot of public interest and debate, and spread awareness of the atrocities committed against so many children. Importantly, individuals could unite globally to take action in support of this issue, and this unique feature was most likely the source of strong public interest that it received. The campaign did, however, leave a lot to be desired, evident in the numerous criticisms it received. It didn't lead to the public action that the organisers had hoped for, seen in the failure of 'Cover the Night'. It's not known whether the failure of the campaign to move from the internet to the streets reflected apathy, or rather that people became aware of the campaign's criticisms. If the lack of action followed people's awareness of these criticisms, then the film did have a positive effect by prompting people to engage with this issue.

The ASEAN Civil Society Conference: a ‘people-oriented’ ASEAN?

Kelly Gerard 

The first of two ASEAN Civil Society Conferences to be held under Cambodia’s chairmanship took place in late March, alongside the first ASEAN Summit for 2012. The Cambodian government’s intervention in this event set a new benchmark for measures employed by ASEAN governments to oust civil society participation from official discussions. This event presented numerous challenges to Southeast Asian civil society groups, and provides insight into the current state of ASEAN-civil society relations.

The ASEAN Civil Society Conference has been held eight times under various titles, and is organised by members of the Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy (SAPA) network. This occurs in consultation with national civil society groups in the host country and the relevant ASEAN government where necessary. Consequently, it is considered the ‘genuine’ forum for Southeast Asian civil society organisations to present their ideas, network, collaborate on common areas and attempt to engage ASEAN officials on issues of concern.

The event shadows the ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting and comprises a series of plenary sessions and workshops where participants discuss regional issues and collaborate in drafting a ‘People’s Statement’ addressed to ASEAN leaders. Participants also appoint a civil society representative from each country, who later participates in an interface meeting with ASEAN heads of state. In some instances, these meetings have lasted up to 30 minutes, as seen in Hua Hin in February 2009; at others the host government has not permitted the interface meeting to take place at all, such as in Singapore in November 2007. Here, the ‘People’s Statement’ was submitted to officials in the hope that it would be tabled during their discussions.

This year’s event presented a number of challenges to Southeast Asian civil society. The conference was held from 29-31 March at the Lucky Star Hotel in Phnom Penh, and attracted 1200 participants from 300 organisations across the region. The first obstacle the conference faced was the rival ‘ASEAN People’s Forum’ held at the Chaktomuk Conference Hall from 28-30 March. It was organised by a Cambodian organisation, Positive Change in Cambodia, which is widely perceived to have close ties to the Cambodian government. The event was supported and attended by senior Cambodian government officials, and some other ASEAN governments also supported the rival event. This was evident in the transfer of 30 Laotian delegates by the Laotian ambassador from the ASEAN Civil Society Conference to the ASEAN People’s Forum. The rival forum also divided civil society participants, who were forced to choose between groups viewed as independent and those portraying themselves as wanting to work with governments.

The second obstacle was the Lucky Star Hotel management’s opposition to a number of workshops. The management threatened to cut power and padlock the venue if particular workshops proceeded. These included workshops on Myanmar's current political and human rights situation and its planned ASEAN chairmanship in 2014, as well as land evictions, the expansion of mono-culture plantations and the protection of ethnic minorities’ rights to land. SAPA network members noted that it is difficult not to believe the Cambodian government had a role in these prohibitions. These obstacles came on top of delays in gaining access to the venue, following the slow release of necessary permits by Cambodian officials.

The third issue was the Cambodian government’s request that ASEAN member states nominate a civil society representative for the interface meeting, rather than allow civil society groups to conduct their independent nomination process. Only the Indonesian and Philippines governments consulted with independent civil society groups on this matter, and their representatives subsequently boycotted the meeting.

These events cast doubt on the credibility of ASEAN’s commitment to becoming a people-oriented organisation. ASEAN began promoting its efforts to build a community in Southeast Asia following the Asian financial crisis of 1997, and after the signing of Bali Concord II in 2003 the idea of a ‘people-oriented community’ became a buzzword. This was reinforced by the ratification of the ASEAN Charter in 2008, which committed member states to democratic norms and to the promotion and protection of human rights. After 30 years of having little to no impact on the lives of average citizens in Southeast Asia, these developments created the expectation of change. But the Cambodian government’s intervention in the ASEAN Civil Society Conference, and the support it received from other member states, belie the hollowness of these commitments.

Through these efforts, the Cambodian government has also demonstrated it rejects the value of civil society’s contributions to ASEAN processes. It disregarded their expertise in numerous areas relevant to the discussions of this ASEAN Summit, including drug and people trafficking, the plight of migrant workers, the environmental impacts of large-scale infrastructure projects, and disaster preparedness. The exclusion of civil society groups is likely to prove costly in the coming decades, both in undermining ASEAN’s efforts to distance itself from its previous image as an ‘old boys club’ and in not utilising civil society’s expertise in its ongoing reform agenda.