I.C.C. Considers Trying Kony In Absentia: What Does This Mean For Victims?

Last week Mr. Karim Khan, the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.), announced that he will request the charges against the fugitive militia leader Joseph Kony to be confirmed in the defendant’s absence. This would be a first in the Court’s history, but Khan says he hopes the confirmation of charges will start bringing relief and justice for Kony’s victims.

Joseph Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (L.R.A.), an insurgent group which arose in Uganda and has been active in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic (C.A.R.). The group was infamous for forcibly recruiting child soldiers; estimates suggest that since its creation in 1987 there have been 100,000 deaths and 60,000 child abductions. There are also scores of accounts of sexual assault and slavery. “Forced motherhood was a defining feature of the conflict [with the L.R.A.],” confirmed Sarah Kihika Kasande, the head of the Uganda office of the International Center for Transitional Justice. “Young women were forced not only to be sexual slaves … but to give birth to children who would be groomed to become child soldiers.”

Kony became internationally infamous in 2012 after an American N.G.O., Invisible Children, released a film calling for his arrest by the end of the year. The campaign was extremely effective at capturing the attention of Western populations and politicians. However, it quickly came under harsh scrutiny. Invisible Children was accused of white saviorism (assuming that white, Western individuals had the ability and the right to solve Ugandan political issues, motivated by a desire for the gratification of “being the savior” rather than a real desire for justice). The film was criticized in Uganda for being outdated and over-simplifying a complex conflict. In particular, detractors pointed out that the Ugandan military had also committed war crimes, but that this did not feature in the documentary.

Barack Obama’s administration dedicated U.S. forces to support the man-hunt, but critics saw the U.S. military support as being more about appeasing American populations than actually bringing justice to the L.R.A.’s victims, and its success is questionable. The search was abandoned in 2017, by which time the L.R.A. had dwindled from 3000 to an estimated 100 soldiers, and the 150 American soldiers and 1,500 Ugandan troops deployed in Obo, C.A.R. returned home. But these soldiers themselves were once again accused of war crimes, particularly sexual abuse of civilian women in the C.A.R.

Is this renewed drive in the man-hunt for Kony just more self-gratifying posturing from the West? What does this I.C.C. process actually mean for victims? There is constant debate around the usefulness of truth commissions, war tribunals, and other justice mechanisms which simply “speak truth” about what has occurred during war. Some believe that speaking openly and acknowledging the crimes that have been committed can be the beginning of healing for the people who have suffered. Others believe that these processes merely re-traumatize victims, who must relive past experiences while their need for practical and financial compensation goes unsatisfied.

Khan’s decision on the Kony case has brought up all of these arguments. Beatrice Akello, a legislator from northern Uganda, believes that beginning the hearing without Kony in the room is useless: “Who will be defending him [Joseph Kony]?” she asks. “After passing the judgment, how will they execute it? … If people want to help us, let them come out and help us. But they should not pretend to be helping us when they are not.”

On the other hand, I.C.C. verdicts are significant because they expose the “full spectrum of sexual crimes and other atrocities that the people experienced and their lasting impact,” Kasande says, speaking about the conviction of another L.R.A. leader in 2021. Aubin Kottokpinze, the President of the Association of L.R.A. Victims in the C.A.R., also supports I.C.C. intervention in the issue. “We … want the perpetrators brought to justice. We ask the C.A.R. government to support us in our quest for justice before the International Criminal Court,” Kottokpinze said.

Clearly court proceedings against Kony are not enough for victims – practical assistance is needed, too. However, the international legal approach is a step forward from the foreign military intervention 20 years ago, for two reasons. Firstly, it responds to the requests of (at least some) victims, rather than the requests of a disconnected Western public. Secondly, as a non-military process, it therefore does not introduce the risk of communities falling victim to further war crimes at soldiers’ hands. Future expressions of global solidarity with communities affected by war should incorporate these two principles.

Sarah McArthur