• October 15, 2010
  • News & Analysis
  • 2

HRW to Obama: Put “principles into practice” and see Kony apprehended

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth wrote in Foreign Policy that President Obama should do more to fulfill his responsibility as an international leader to help protect people facing mass atrocities anywhere in the world. He goes on to argue that “there is no better case for the humanitarian use of force than the urgent need to arrest Joseph Kony, the ruthless leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), and protect the civilians who are his prey.”

Roth also notes that President Obama’s signing of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act presents a historic opportunity for the US to work with international and regional leaders to apprehend Kony and protect civilians from LRA attacks. We couldn’t agree more. Our recent report, From Promise to Peace: A Blueprint for President Obama’s LRA Strategy, outlines the steps President Obama should take to do so. And our ongoing From Promise to Peace campaign aims to get Members of Congress and ordinary citizens to hold President Obama accountable to including these steps in his LRA strategy, which is to be released in coming weeks.

Roth’s argument provoked criticism from Professor Laura Seay over at Texas in Africa (and from the Wronging Rights crew), who rightly noted that arresting Joseph Kony and senior LRA commanders will not be easy. Seay highlighted some of the diplomatic challenges to doing so, including potential resistance from the Sudanese government, a longtime patron of the LRA. She also mentions the practical obstacles that international forces would face in getting accurate intelligence about Kony’s whereabouts and in operating in dense forests and among communities whose languages and cultures would be unfamiliar.

However, we disagree with Seay’s conclusion that because of these challenges Human Rights Watch’s call for US support for more capable apprehension efforts would be “off base.” These challenges are not insurmountable, and plausible alternatives to delivering Kony’s arrest and ending the LRA’s threat to civilians have much weaker prospects for success (see our comments on TiA’s blog for more on this).

There is a broad consensus among the governments of Uganda, Congo, South Sudan, and Central African Republic (CAR) that LRA atrocities will not end until Kony and top LRA leaders are arrested. The group is highly dependent upon the personalities and tactical experience of these leaders for its survival, and a negotiated solution is not currently a viable option. The ongoing cooperation of these countries in operations against the LRA, while still tenuous, has been a bright spot in regional geopolitics haunted by a history of cross-border conflicts. Sustaining the collaboration and investment of regional governments will be key to the success of any effort.

But as I saw clearly during a research trip to all four countries earlier this year, hoping that national militaries in affected countries can overcome severe operational constraints and succeed in apprehending Kony and other senior commanders on their own is a gamble that puts stability and civilian lives in the region at risk. There have been a number of reported instances over the past eighteen months in which actionable intelligence on the whereabouts of Kony and other top commanders existed, yet the opportunity was blown by regional forces that lack the training, mobility, and logistics support needed to act effectively.

While no operation is ever guaranteed to succeed, experts we have consulted with indicate that it is quite possible to put together a configuration of capable special forces and timely intelligence to dramatically improve the prospects of securing Kony’s arrest. And attaining the invitation from regional governments for international forces to do so is a feasible task. As we argue in our report, President Obama should work with regional and international partners to identify a country or set of countries willing to put forward the capabilities required for a viable arrest operation, and then use aggressive diplomacy to establish the legal and political framework for its deployment through the invitation of regional governments and the backing of the UN Security Council or African Union.

Such a force would be operating in an unfamiliar cultural context. However, local communities in Congo, South Sudan, and CAR have for the most part welcomed efforts by Ugandan troops to seek out LRA commanders over the past two years and have often helped them overcome a lack of knowledge about the local terrain and languages. There is little reason to think they would not be willing to do the same with a more capable military force seeking to arrest senior LRA commanders and protect civilians from a rebel group that terrorizes their communities and abducts their children.

As both Texas in Africa and Wronging Rights note, the path to Kony’s arrest will certainly look different if he has in fact moved into Darfur where forces pursuing him are not allowed to enter, as International Crisis Group reported yesterday. But Khartoum’s former (and possibly ongoing) support for the LRA is exactly why international and regional leaders should not allow this development to deter them from pursuing Kony’s apprehension, especially if the LRA continues to undermine the preparations for South Sudan’s upcoming independence referendum. The UN peacekeeping force in Darfur (UNAMID) is weak and Khartoum would likely resist other outside military forces entering Darfur to target LRA leaders. However, US and regional diplomats could work out a deal with Khartoum in which Sudanese forces arrest senior LRA commanders as part of broader negotiations regarding Darfur or South Sudan.

The main obstacle to seeing Joseph Kony and his top cohorts behind bars is a lack of political will on the part of regional and international leaders. This lack of political will stems largely from the fact that LRA violence is targeting some of the most remote and marginalized people on the continent, communities who have little influence in their national capitals and rarely catch the attention of international media.

President Obama promised in May that the US would seek to end this history of neglect and stop LRA atrocities once and for all. It won’t be easy for him to keep that promise, but the communities in central Africa living in constant fear of the next LRA raid on their family or community deserve nothing less.

— Paul

PS – We also posted a few more comments on this topic, including on the debate about whether American special forces are needed to apprehend Kony, on TiA’s blog.

PPS – These debates about the feasibility of apprehending top LRA leaders are important, but shouldn’t take away from advocate’s efforts to push President Obama to implement a comprehensive LRA strategy that also includes more robust efforts to protect civilians, encourage defections from the LRA, increase humanitarian relief to affected communities, and help improve good governance and democratic institutions in the region.

About the Author

Guest Poster
Guest Poster