Money Talks: The New Plan to Catch Kony

A little over a year ago, a viral video took the Internet by storm. In the week following the release of “Kony 2012,” the video had over a hundred million views, had reached more than half of all eighteen to twenty-nine year olds, and was the subject of over five million tweets. Kony 2012was created by the organization Invisible Children, and details the activity of Joseph Kony and the horrific human rights abuses he as committed — specifically, the abduction and forced conscription of child soldiers. Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a cult-like militia that initially developed in Uganda to fight against the repressive Ugandan government that has displaced over 400,000 civilians since 2008 alone.

Despite widespread criticism that Kony 2012 failed to live up to expectations — and notwithstanding an unfair media fallout after Kony 2012 Director Jason Russell suffered a public breakdown —  the organization has a justified cause and hasn’t nearly overstated the brutality of the Lord’s Resistance Army. After failed peace talks lasting between 2006-2008, the situation has actually worsened. The LRA has since metastasized into SudanSouth Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, expanding their area of influence. The LRA political-military expanse creates a feedback loop, allowing the organization to maintain their fight in Uganda by drawing on outside resources, including child soldiers. A 2011 Oxfam survey found that 90 percent of all Congolese residing in LRA-dominated areas feel severely threatened by the organization’s presence and unprotected by their government.

But now things may be looking up. Secretary of State John Kerry announced in April that the U.S. would offer a $5 million reward for information leading to the arrest, transfer, or conviction of Kony as well as several of his top aides. This new reward was made possible by the expansion of the War Crimes Rewards Program — the final legislation Kerry sponsored as a senator — which was signed into law in January. But while Secretary Kerry’s announcement hopefully portends bold action in the fight against Kony, it may also represent an intriguing new chapter in an entirely different fight: a fierce decades-long debate over the what constitutes the best method of catching war criminals.

In this regard, there are several reasons why Invisible Children’s call for American military involvement is not appropriate — and why Secretary of State Kerry’s bounty strategy is. Secretary Kerry, in placing a large reward for information relating to the capture of Kony and his top aides, has opted for a  safer course of action that has seen high levels of success in the past. The increased mobility that private bounty hunters enjoy makes them more likely to capture a war criminal than a military force. And American monetary rewards have assisted in the arrest of war criminals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Of the 161 war criminals indicted at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, all have been brought to justice, and only 9 of the 92 charged at the Rwandan tribunal remain at large. The bounty strategy would seem to preclude heightened U.S. military action, and offers a way for us to chase these criminals without committing troops.

All this may signify an intellectual cold shower to a generation of Americans raised in an era when unilateral force has reigned supreme in American foreign policy. But as Americans now acutely realize, while it may sound ideal to simply infiltrate a region and bring a war criminal to justice, such a response would likely have more negative effects than positive. To begin, the LRA is widely dispersed among several countries, in a terrain that is difficult to navigate for natives, let alone for foreign military commanders and personnel. LRA dispersal means the United States would have to deal with multiple governments, making it a highly expensive operation that would require an exhaustive degree of coordination. After the deployment of an additional one hundred U.S. forces in 2011, the LRA split into several smaller groups to avoid detection, making any sort of large scale movement against the group even more difficult to coordinate, and the LRA members themselves harder to track. Given the United States’ current financial woes, another entangling military expenditure — especially one with limited chance of success — would appear an unwise move.

Additionally, any sort of military action to capture and arrest Kony would require far more extensive cooperation with the Ugandan government, a government that is itself guilty of numerous human rights abuses. Joseph Kony is an evil man, and his deeds should not go unpunished, but the government he fights against is not a benign power that the United States should readily assist.  Uganda’s nascent political apparatus has been plagued with corruption for years, and despite strenuous reforms to change this pattern, a 2012 World Audit ranking of 180 countries still ranked the country 107th in corruption and 98th in democratic stability. The Ugandan army itself has used child soldiers, including even those recently freed from the LRA. Funneling economic and military resources to such a government, ironically in the name of ending a manhunt for an unrepentant war criminal, would likely only result in further capacity for human rights abuses. This is a mistake the United States has made many times, propping up a less-than-ideal regime in order to combat a lesser one. The United States need only look back at its own recent history, when it sold chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein in order to undermine Iran, deemed at the time a more pressing threat. Cooperating with the lesser of two evils often holds dire future consequences.

Removing war criminals like Kony should be a priority for the United States, but not if it means dealing with corrupt governments or at absurdly great cost to our own country. Invisible Children seeks an overly simplified and expensive solution to the problem of Joseph Kony, while Secretary Kerry exhibits a more measured response that, based upon history, has a similarly strong chance of success. This should be the United States’ response when dealing with war criminals in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and other African countries which display high levels of corruption and instability. Money talks — and may very well prove an effective way to bring these individuals to justice.