Thoughts on the ‘Kony 2012’ campaign

by Benjamin Ong

1. A video advocating the use of popular action with a view to facilitating the arrest of Joseph Kony through existing structures (viz. action by the state and the ICC) has been making its rounds. I feel compelled to state my views, although, for the avoidance of doubt, this message does not express a view on the substantive merits of any particular type of activist effort or cause, or any mode of communication.

2. The cause advocated by the video appears to be based on the right of self-determination of young people who have been forced to work as soldiers (it cannot be based on a broad anti-war stance, for it is acknowledged that military force has a role to play in effecting the arrest of Kony). It is submitted that this right has a greater claim to unversality than others, being the one implicitly invoked by parties which argue against what is seen as the exogenous imposition of a rights framework on the grounds of the subjectivity of rights-based discourse.

3. It is noted that the fundamental premise of the video is that popular action can be a catalyst for change. This does not itself conflict with established power centres, viz. states, in that the implication is that popular action acts to encourage or influence, rather than compete with, the use of state power. It also generally does not compete on the level of ideology to the extent that its cause has the backing of the ICC, which carries a reasonable degree of impartiality and has the sanction of a significant number of states (albeit not all states) from around the world.

4. It is submitted that this invocation of the idea of popular action would appear to deconstruct itself to the extent that it has taken place through the action of a core of motivated parties, which have made use of techniques not available to the average person (e.g. obtaining footage from Uganda, then communicating it using a rhetorically powerful video which is professional in appearance). The use of popular action as a catalyst for change is thus democratic only to the extent that it has mass blessing, but the cause in question cannot necessarily be said to originate from the same mass. Consequently, there exists the potential for the vehicle of instigation of popular action to be used to advocate a cause which lacks the widespread support, or the degree of legitimacy, of the one in question.

5. Support for the video in question appears to hinge on recourse to an intrinsic sense of rights which happens to subsist within the mass consciousness, or the consciousness of many people. But it is at the edges of rights-based discourse, when the rights which are invoked are those which have less of a claim to centrality than that of self-determination, that there is potential for conflict with other drivers of power, and thus potential for rhetorical opposition to be established between equally legitimate stances or power centres that subscribe to them.

6. It is on these grounds that I would support the cause promoted by this video only on the particular facts; it is submitted that the precedential value of the success of this movement should be restricted to the most universal of causes, and, moreover, that there may arise in time a need for a definition of such causes. It is acknowledged that this would be difficult as previous attempts to do so (e.g. the UDHR) have not met with universal approval.

7. It is acknowledged that this view would appear to advocate the paradoxical idea of the regulation of ground-up movements, and submitted that this will be necessary in the light of power asymmetries between different sections of or members of ‘the ground’ and, in severe cases, the potential for the severe destabilisation of the security of civilisation should multiple conflicting popular movements arise.