Archive for Africa – Page 2

“Not Just a Slogan:” An Interview with Tibi Galis, Executive Director of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation, on Genocide Prevention

By Michelle Eberhard, graduate student of human rights at Columbia University


Established in 2007, the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation is dedicated to the creation of an international genocide prevention network.  To fulfill its mission, the Institute has developed several education programs, most notably its Raphael Lemkin Seminar, as well as a genocide prevention network in Latin America in 2012.  Following the signing of an agreement with the African Union in February 2013, the Institute will soon be developing a similar network amongst African countries.  Below is an interview with Executive Director of the Auschwitz Institute, Tibi Galis.


Michelle Eberhard: How did you become interested in working in genocide prevention?

Tibi Galis: I grew up in a transition country, in Romania, so it was very interesting to experience in person the impact political change can have on society, and that is why I started being rather passionate about transition studies.  There was a very easy path from transition studies to transitional justice, which became my area of research, and from there to dealing with genocide prevention. This is very much about trying to undo the circumstances that have led to the problems that transitional justice tries to deal with.  It was both an academic and activist journey to getting to working in genocide prevention.


M.E.: What is the biggest challenge for an organization like the Auschwitz Institute in carrying out its mission?

T.G.: Probably the biggest challenge would be what all not-for-profits struggle with, which is the fact that we have to dedicate a lot of our work to securing the funds we need to do the work that we do. At the same time, though, it’s very surprising how the issues that people traditionally think of as challenging have not been so [difficult] in our work. Working with governments is traditionally depicted as being a very difficult process, and our experience is that there is so much interest within governments to make this issue a more effective part of their work that they are very cooperative and very [willing to] work together.


M.E.: In February, the Auschwitz Institute signed an agreement with the African Union to establish the African Network for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention.  In light of the current continental conflicts, including those in Syria and Mali, what do you see as being the greatest obstacles for effective implementation of the initiatives outlined in this agreement?

T.G.: The international climate of conflict, and focusing on ongoing conflicts, can be very obstructive to a continent-wide initiative focusing on prevention.  We’ve seen this a lot, especially in governmental attitudes towards longer-term policies that focus on prevention as opposed to crisis management. Of course, for natural reasons, crisis management is prioritized, and the Auschwitz Institute wants countries to prioritize crisis management. At the same time, that prioritization sometimes translates into giving up on preventive policies altogether, which this program wants to make sure is not an acceptable position for its participating governments.  The greatest challenge, I believe, will be to make sure that governments understand the need for longer-term policies oriented specifically towards prevention.


M.E.: What is your response to individuals who say that it is impossible to prevent genocide, or who think the only way to prevent such atrocities is through military intervention?

T.G.: The response I usually offer is that genocide prevention needs to be understood not as an action, but as a process, like any other political, long-term process.  Genocide can be prevented, and we have the proof of that within societies that function and do not break down into spaces for permanent war between groups. Genocide prevention is indeed creating the environment for groups to be able to manage their political differences within an established framework. […]  Military intervention is crisis management – sometimes military intervention can play a role in preventing further atrocities, but we at the Auschwitz Institute focus on the many, many peaceful ways of engaging societies to prevent genocide, and those methods are actually a lot more successful.


M.E.: How have the Auschwitz Institute’s programs, particularly the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention, been successful in their mission of preventing genocide?

T.G.: What we have found is that the institutions that have been engaged with the Raphael Lemkin Seminar and with the Auschwitz Institute for a long period [of time], have actually managed to pull through and establish changes in the way they work that resulted from the knowledge imparted through the Seminar and through subsequent collaboration. Many of our participant institutions have refocused their policies to include more group-related policies [and] more assessments of risk-related situations [for minority groups] in their society, and we think that contributed to reshaping policy in those countries, towards the groups that are at risk.


M.E. Human rights work, and specifically work done in the realm of atrocity prevention, can oftentimes be frustrating and complicated, given the need to work with various individuals and organizations from all levels and affiliations (i.e., government, NGOs, civil society).  In spite of this, how do you remain committed to your objectives, and pursue them in a meaningful and positive way?

T.G.: It’s actually not that difficult to engage the actors that are relevant for these issues. What is difficult is to make sure that that engagement is substantive, and that requires drawing on lots of other kinds of work that is connected to research [and the] analysis of existing policies. We are very lucky at the Institute [in regards to] the readiness of NGO, academic, and research communities to share their experience with us and with our governmental partners. Again, the surprise is that both governments and civil society are very ready to work on this.


M.E.: Considering everything the Auschwitz Institute has contributed to the field of genocide prevention, which of its accomplishments are you most proud?

T.G.: I think what we are most proud of at the Auschwitz Institute are really our contributions to the existing trend of establishing national mechanisms for genocide prevention, similar to the Atrocities Prevention Board in the United States, the national commissions for genocide prevention in different African countries, [and] national mechanisms of genocide prevention in different Latin American countries. I think the [national-level policies] of genocide prevention is one of the big steps that humanity has taken to make “never again” a reality, and not just a slogan.


M.E.: What advice do you have for graduate students interested in working in human rights upon the completion of their degree?

T.G.: I would encourage human rights graduate students to be very conscious, even before the completion of their degree, that they need to engage with different organizations in order to be able to work in this field. […]  Actually getting engaged with different topics and different organizations before you graduate – through internships, through focusing your research on them, through basic socializing with an organization by attending their events – helps the chance of entering the field later on, and entering the field from a good position: one where you have realistic expectations related to the field. But beyond that, my advice is to just keep doing what you’re already doing, because once somebody makes the choice [to study] human rights and issues related to them, you are already on a great, rewarding path.


Michelle is a MA candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Michelle is concentrating in genocide studies, and she worked as a communications intern with the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation.

ISHR Event: Honoring Indigenous Women at Columbia University

By Megan Baker, student at Columbia College

From left to right, Otilia Lux De Coti, awardee, Myrna Cunningham and Tarcila Rivera Zea

From left to right, Otilia Lux De Coti, awardee, Myrna Cunningham and Tarcila Rivera Zea

On May 24, 2013, the Foro Internacional de Mujeres Indigenas (International Indigenous Women’s Forum), or FIMI, honored two indigenous women, an elder and a youth, with the 2013 FIMI Leadership Award at the “Honoring Indigenous Women’s Visions and Creativity” awards ceremony held at Deutsches Haus at Columbia University. The awards ceremony was hosted by the Institute for the Study of Human Rights (ISHR) Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program in partnership with FIMI. This award marked these women’s demonstrated exceptional leadership and the impact they have had in their communities, countries and at the international level defending and advocating for human rights.

The first to be honored was Myrna Cunningham, an indigenous Miskita woman from the community of Waspam in Nicaragua. Ms. Cunningham began her career as a primary education teacher, but left her community to study medicine and surgery. She became the first female Miskita doctor and worked for the Ministry of Public Health, but following the armed conflict in the late 1970’s, she returned to Waspam as a community health organizer. Ms. Cunningham also later became the first female Miskita governor in the autonomous region’s regional government. In the 1990’s, she founded and served as the director of the University of the Autonomous Region of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast, also known as URACCAN, which sought to facilitate a intercultural university community for indigenous peoples and ethnic communities. Today, she is the current Member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and its Chairperson in 2012, and the President of the Center for the Autonomous Development of Indigenous Peoples (CADPI) in Nicaragua.

Awardee, Mphatheleni Makaulule

Awardee, Mphatheleni Makaulule

The second indigenous woman to be honored was Mphatheleni Makaulule, a South African indigenous leader recognized for her work in the VhaVenda region of South Africa. There, she works alongside other indigenous women leaders called Makhadzis in a group called Dzomo la Mupo. These women leaders are custodians of the sacred natural sites and the traditional knowledge regarding seeds and soils. Together, they have been working to secure food sovereignty through the recuperation of local seed varieties and the rituals in which particular plants are used.  In addition, they stand up against threats to their land and culture, such as mining projects in the region. The knowledge of the Mikhadzis is crucial in maintaining environmental stability in the VhaVenda region.

This awards ceremony marked the conclusion of FIMI’s and Columbia’s “Indigenous Women Leaders at Columbia University, a two-day seminar,” which was hosted by ISHR’s Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program at Columbia’s Deutsches Haus, May 15 -16, 2013. Participants of the seminar are a part of the first annual Global Leadership School of Indigenous Women of FIMI, which also includes online and in-person classes and attendance at the annual session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. The women of the Global Leadership School come from indigenous communities from across the globe, including Sudan, Nepal, Ecuador and Peru. This two-day seminar aimed to provide the participants with a human rights and capacity-building curriculum that will give them the opportunity to explore a broader context of human rights topics and advocacy. The lectures and discussions of the Columbia two-day workshop were conducted by Columbia faculty, Prof. Elazar Barkan, Prof. Elsa Stamatopoulou, Mr. John Washburn, Visiting Scholar, Prof. Tone Bleie,  Prof. Michael Silverman,  Prof. Amalia Cordova from New York University and UN Legal Affairs expert Ms. Anne Fosty. The lectures included topics such as “Situating human rights in International Law,” “The International Criminal Court and its relevance for indigenous peoples,” and “Ethics and compliance: the challenges of managing organizations.” The FIMI Global Leadership School, which began in February 2013, will conclude August 2013. With the success of its first year, FIMI looks forward to continued programming for the Global Leadership School and ISHR, the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Program and Columbia University look forward to hosting our partners and affiliates again in the future.

Megan Baker is a senior at Columbia College where she is double majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies and Ethnicity and Race on the American Indian Studies tract. She is president of Native American Heritage Month and publicity chair of the Native American Council.

Notes from the Field: Securing Women’s Land Rights in the Acholi sub-region in Northern Uganda

By Allison Tamer, MA student in the Human Rights Studies program at Columbia University

For many people living in Northern Uganda, land is their only means of survival. Land is such a prized possession that disputes over land is a common occurrence, frequently escalating into aggressive and sometimes violent situations.  For example, one man in the Amuru district attempted to poison a village’s water source so he could take over the deceased’s land. In 2010, a family in the same district lit another family’s home aflame during the night over a land dispute. This act of violence took the lives of two young girls who were sleeping during the attack.

As land conflicts intensify in this region, the situation for women and their right to land seems to be getting worse.  Gender and socio-cultural factors compounded with the aftermath of the two decades of civil war in Northern Uganda has made the struggle for women’s right to land more difficult.

Women’s land rights are protected under Uganda’s 1995 constitution and the Land Act 1998, which defines the types of land ownership that are legally recognized. In Northern Uganda, however, the majority of land ownership is under the customary tenure system and is typically passed from one generation to another. This type of land ownership is guided by informal rules that are reinforced by the Acholi traditional clan structure.  This means that land is under the custody of clan heads (i.e., family heads) and elders, who are almost always men. Often times, male clan leaders refuse to grant their female relatives land ownership, as they believe that land should be transferred through male heads of household.

The customary land tenure system makes it difficult for women to navigate and advocate for their land rights.  Many widows, divorcees and separated women are denied land by their own relatives, and live, often with children to support, in misery and destitution. In a non-industrialized region with low unemployment, having nowhere to farm means no food on the table or money for children’s school fees

This summer, I worked with Charity for Rural Development (CHAFORD) in Gulu, Uganda. CHAFORD teaches women how land ownership can improve their livelihood and how they can protect themselves from unforeseen circumstances such as divorce or widowhood.  CHAFORD formed one group of about twenty-five women in Attiak, a sub-county in the Amuru district, and provided them with a safe outlet to discuss their land rights and receive educational training in the value of land ownership.

CHAFORD understands that women must have the economic means to purchase land in order to truly exercise their rights to land. Therefore, CHAFORD works with women in various ways to increase their income through training in various vocational skills, providing seedlings and facilitating village savings and loans associations so that the women can buy land.

Photo: Allison Tamer

During the summer, I met Alice, an active member of CHAFORD’s land rights group. She was the first and only member of the group to purchase land. When I spoke to Alice, she explained to me how the land rights group inspired her to follow through with her goal of purchasing land. CHAFORD’s staff, along with the women in her land rights group, motivated her to start a butchery business so that she could obtain the income necessary to buy land. Two years later, she purchased a piece of land under her name. She said that she hopes her two daughters will follow her example and own land one day too.

CHAFORD takes small steps to create change in the communities where they work. While there are many local NGOs working in Northern Uganda, few are working specifically on land rights for women. In addition, many NGOs including CHAFORD are quite young, and lack the resources and institutional capacity to tackle women’s land rights in a consistent and long-term way.

Women in the Acholi sub-region of Northern Uganda encounter multiple barriers in claiming their land rights. The most significant obstacles to securing women’s land rights can be found within the customary tenure land system. Women’s land rights will not improve until there are effective, long-lasting solutions to overcome the many dimensions that impede women’s access to land. Until this is done, local NGOs in Northern Uganda will continue to struggle to secure women’s land rights.

Allison Tamer is a M.A. candidate in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. She was a participation in the Institute for the Study of Human Rights Graduate Student Volunteer Program in Gulu, Uganda this summer.



Indictment, Trial and Verdict: The ICC’s First-Ever Conviction

An interview with conveners of the American Coalition for the ICC (AMICC), John Washburn and Matthew Heaphy

As the final salvos of the KONY 2012 debate began to retreat from Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds, the International Criminal Court (ICC) has finally announced its first-ever conviction. On March 14th 2012, judges in The Hague found Thomas Lubanga Dylio, 51, guilty “beyond reasonable doubt” of committing crimes of conscription, enlistment and use of children to participate in hostilities under the Rome Statute Article 8.2 (b).

Thomas Lubanga on trial at the International Criminal Court. © Ed Oudenaarden/AFP/Getty Images

Lubanga was a major figure in the Second Congo War (1998-2003) and the Ituri conflict (1999-2003) that saw Lubanga’s Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) participate in murder, torture and rape on a massive scale. Ituri is a fertile region in North-East DRC rich in gold, diamonds, and oil and was often referred to as the bloodiest corner of the DRC—as the longstanding local dispute between the Hema pastoralists (Lubanga’s tribe) and rival Lendu agriculturalists was exploited by regional actors.

The Lubanga case is a watershed moment for the ICC. The chamber disagreed with defense claims that Lubanga, as UPC president, had no direct involvement in child conscription and instead reaffirmed his superior responsibility; citing forensic evidence, such as a video footage of Lubanga exhorting a group of child soldiers, and relying on witness testimony that Lubanga had a personal guard of child soldiers.  Lubanga has 30 days  from the release of the French version of the judgment to appeal the verdict.

The debate surrounding the ICC, and the Lubanga conviction specifically, is manifold. ICC advocates emphasize the narrowing impunity gap and the potential deterrence affects on future mass atrocities. Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner of Human Rights Watch observes, “military commanders in Congo and elsewhere should take notice of the ICC’s powerful message: using children as a weapon of war is a serious crime that can lead to the dock.”

Antony Njuguna, Reuters, Files

However other human rights groups have sharply criticized the ICC Prosecutor Louis-Moreno Ocampo for his case-selection strategy and allegedly myopic prosecutorial approach—reducing the vast array of crimes committed by Lubanga to charges of child recruitment. Ocampo has also been criticized for, at least initially, breaching Lubanga’s fair trial rights by refusing to release potentially exculpatory evidence. More generally, critics also charge that the ICC is expensive, with an overall expenditure of $900 million, but only this one result since its inception in 2002.

Below I chat with John Washburn and Matthew Heaphy, Convener and Deputy Convener of AMICC, about the Lubanga conviction. AMICC is a coalition of non-governmental organizations that works to raise US domestic support for the ICC, and is a program of the ISHR.

1) A major criticism of the Lubanga trial is the narrow scope of charges the accused was charged with. What are the major benefits of this prosecutorial strategy? Drawbacks?

MH: One of the major benefits of this strategy is, on one level, special attention given to this crime—which has not been a consistent focus of international attention. Particularly, the plight of children in armed conflict. In this case, the Prosecutor embraced the opportunity to bring attention to this serious crime and to have a simple case to establish substantive jurisprudence and case law.

This case also helps clarify and define what it means to be someone who is accused of committing this crime. It also defines what it means to be a victim of child conscription—that enlistment first begins when the child is brought into the ranks of the militia and doesn’t end until they turn fifteen, when the conflict ends, they are released or when the child soldier is demobilized. This jurisprudence will certainly be elaborated on and cited in future child soldier cases that are expected to come before the Court.

As far as the narrow list of charges, in an ideal world individuals are made to answer for the crimes that they allegedly commit. The reality the Prosecutor faces is that he or she needs to go to trial with the evidence available. The evidence at hand and available at the time of Lubanga’s arrest presented an overwhelmingly strong case against Lubanga for the conscription and use of child soldiers. However, the Prosecutor has also shown a willingness in an upcoming case against Lubanga’s co-accused—who is still at large, Bosco Ntaganda—to substantially expand the list of charges.

 JW: It is also noteworthy that the child soldier charges are broader than they first appear: they involve abuse of the child soldiers, boys and girls, including sex slaves, torture, and inhumane treatment.

2) Approximately 123 victims participated in the Lubanga trial on their own behalf. How did this work in practice during Lubanga’s hearing?

JW: Victim participation gives judges a larger sense of the context—it’s very helpful for judges that are not part of the culture or specific situation to understand the larger picture surrounding the conflict. The Court also noted that people did crowd in areas where they were televising the video and that the audience identified with the victims.

 MH: One of the novel challenges facing the Court was the participation of victims—something that has never happened at this level in an international tribunal. Here, we have victims filing applications directly with the Court or legal representatives—not being called as witnesses by either the Prosecutor or the defense, but to represent only themselves and to have the opportunity to participate on their own.

We don’t know how many victims the Court can handle, but there are going to be efforts to ensure that victims’ participation remains meaningful and does not slow down a process that is complicated and perceived by many as being already too slow.


3) Are there potentially negative implications on the legacy of the Lubanga conviction given “right to fair trial” concerns?

MH: The Rome Statute requires that the Prosecutor hand over potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense. However, the Prosecutor was concerned about protecting the confidentiality of individuals and victims whose identities would be released. Upon an order from the Trial Chamber, the Prosecutor negotiated with sources to permit the judges to review the evidence to determine if it was indeed exculpatory—and thus had to be shown to Lubanga’s defense. The result was favorable to everyone; some sensitive evidence remained confidential and fair trial rights were upheld.

 JW: This procedural jurisprudence was an enormous boost to the credibility and standing of the Court. The judges were prepared to place extreme pressure on the Prosecutor to comply. The Trial Chamber should, and did, instruct the Prosecutor to do what due process rights demand and what the rights of the accused require.

4) How do you see the Lubanga verdict influencing/complementing the efforts of AMICC to increase support for the ICC in the United States?

JW: Even if we have changes due to the appeal process, this was a successful case. The verdict was solid and extensive; well-reasoned and well-written. For starters, the document is a consensus document—remarkable in a situation as complicated as the Lubanga case. Therefore, the ruling will help convince people that the Court is fair, professional, and meets our very own standards of due process.

MH: The support of the Court in the U.S. is broad but shallow. When people learn about what the ICC does, they tend to express support but don’t necessarily know the details of how the Court works or what cases are before it. Now that we have a conviction—this will help to change that. Lastly, it is positive that the Court is ready and able to proceed with the next batch of trials—this shows that there are continuing efforts to try individuals for the most serious crimes and that the ICC has a life following the Lubanga conviction.

5) Moving forward, what are the other lessons learned from the ICC’s first-ever conviction?

 JW: It was also very clear that the reason that the trial was as good as it was, and as compelling as it was, was Lubanga’s committed and resourceful defense. This was a defense that was aware, even vigilant, with regards to protecting the rights of the accused. These are outcomes you get only in an effective adversarial proceeding.

MH: The ICC is a young, maturing institution. A lot of the headlines discuss the millions of dollars spent and the fact the there is only one verdict. However, it’s important to recall that in addition to conducting these trials, the world is building an international organization from scratch and building an institution that will be more and more effective at investigating and prosecuting atrocity crimes in the future. And so I like to think that while there was some slowness, the institution will continue to learn and improve if ICC States Parties continue to invest political and financial capital in it.

For further information about the AMICC’s work on the Lubanga verdict, see their recent papers:

And for readers on Columbia campus next week, be sure to see this ISHR/ AMICC event with US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, Stephen J. Rapp.

Derek M. Welski is a M.A. candidate in the Human Rights Studies program at ISHR. Derek’s focus is on international criminology and jurisprudence arising from International Criminal Tribunals.

Mapping the Kony 2012 Controversy: what does it mean for human rights advocacy?

Jason Russell being interviewed on E News on March 8th.

If you have a Twitter or Facebook account, you’ve probably watched Kony 2012. This 29-minute film has more than 65 million hits on YouTube. Invisible Children (IC) co-founder, Jason Russell, directed and narrated the super-viral film that campaigns against Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a militant group that began in Uganda over two decades ago, and a wanted war criminal responsible for the death and abduction of as many as 30,000 children.

Russell asks viewers to join IC’s campaign to capture Kony after describing his friendship with one of Kony’s victims, Jacob, and then sharing a compelling narrative about the promise he made to Jacob – “we’re going to stop them.”

In less than a week, the film has created an uproar. Many criticize the film for misrepresenting the LRA’s part in two decades worth of complex regional wars in East and Central Africa. Others praise the film as a social media superstar. Whether or not IC’s campaign can overcome the criticism, Kony 2012 is sure to provide a lasting lesson in the power and limits of social media activism.

How did Kony 2012 go viral so quickly?
The campaign was extremely savvy in its use of various social media platforms to circulate Kony 2012. The film intentionally targets the younger generation through its simplistic narrative, upbeat music and powerfully edited visuals. The film evoked an emotive response, motivating viewers to “share” it via twitter or facebook.

The targeting of the twenty culture-makers helped this film spread like wildfire. Oprah, Katie Couric, Bill Gates, Justin Bieber and other high profile celebrities have tweeted their support to the Kony 2012 campaign, creating more publicity for the film.  The video accumulated nearly 7 million views on Vimeo within 16 days and the YouTube upload received over 43 million views in the span of 72 hours.

The backlash
The successful spread of Kony 2012 resulted in an explosion of conversations in the blogosphere about the credibility of the film. While everyone agrees that the Joseph Kony story is both horrific and tragic – critics argue the issues in Uganda are much more complex than the video made out.

The film was posted on Monday and by Wednesday there was so much criticism from the media that Invisible Children posted a response to the many questions about the film and the organization.

Potential consequences for human rights
The debates around the Kony 2012 video campaign cover a number of issues, from its clever marketing strategy via social media, to criticisms of the oversimplified narratives in the video, and even Invisible Children’s questionable finances. From a human rights perspective, the debate about whether or not this video is “a good thing” centers around the following questions:

1) Does the video campaign help those directly affected by the LRA because it brings awareness to the issue, despite some oversimplification and misinformation?
Despite factual errors and misrepresentations in the video, some analysts believe that overall the awareness generated is a positive outcome. In their article in The New York Times, Josh Kron and J. David Goodman make the point that the campaign “could help add to the international resolve to stop the killing.” They quote from an interview with Pernille Ironside of UNICEF, who feels the video campaign is “ultimately a good thing.”

News of the video’s success even managed to reach the UN Headquarters, wherea press release was issued on Friday, March 9, where Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe “expressed appreciation for the awareness-raising potential of a video about the LRA.”

At the same time, other commentators have questioned who actually benefits from this “awareness”?

2) Is the video campaign misguided because it focuses the attention on Kony and distracts from other issues that are more urgent for most Ugandans?
Many commentators argue the video is outdated, and that other concerns are more salient to Ugandans at the moment than the ongoing conflict with Joseph Kony.  As Dayo Olopade remarks in the Global Opinion section of the International Herald Tribune,

Victims of Nodding Disease in Uganda, this mysterious disease is spreading amongst children and adolescents in Uganda

“Ordinary Ugandans are worrying about other things….And if it’s Ugandan children in peril you’re looking for, there are those suffering from “nodding disease” — an unusual neurological disease that’s killed hundreds of children in the very region Kony once terrorized.”  She argues that the Kony 2012 video is a distraction from these more pressing issues.


3) Does the level of misinformation and misrepresentation actually make the situation worse for those directly affected by the LRA, and if so, how?
Many Ugandan journalists and activists  have expressed discontent with the video because of how it misrepresents the current state of Uganda, and its use of problematic, if unintended, cultural stereotypes to depict the situation. From a human rights perspective, though, does the video have the potential to cause harm beyond reinforcing simplistic stereotypes?

In The New York Times article mentioned earlier, the authors point out how activism in conflict zones can have significant and negative effects on the ground. The authors refer to activism around the crisis in Darfur, which gave the conflict an international profile, but, “the one-sided way activists painted the conflict — highlighting the Sudanese government’s crimes against villagers while largely ignoring the atrocities committed by rebels — ultimately made it harder to negotiate an end to the crisis.”

In the context of Uganda, many have argued that the decision by the International Criminal Court to indict Kony in 2005 actually made it more difficult for Ugandans to negotiate a peace settlement with the LRA. So an oversimplified advocacy campaign of “Stop Kony” could easily raise red flags for local activists.

This is image is from April 20, 2011. It shows U.S. Army soldiers meeting with the Uganda People’s Defence Force”(AP Photo/Stephen Wandera, File)

Additionally, the video calls for the U.S. government to continue its support of the Ugandan military. However, the Ugandan military has a very murky record when it comes to human rights abuses, and some locals in the Central African Republic (one of the countries where the LRA is now present) do not support the Ugandan military, backed by U.S. advisers.

Outside military intervention in Uganda, as well as in the surrounding countries where the LRA now operates, may not be the simple solution that the video leads us to believe.  Many are worried about potentially harmful policy decisions that may come as a result of this advocacy.

Keeping the conversation going
The Kony 2012 campaign raises an important question: What does “increasing awareness” mean if the source of this awareness is a video that oversimplifies and misrepresents the situation in East and Central Africa? Balancing impact, emotion and nuance have always been challenges for human rights advocates. Rather than allowing the video to get buried in the controversies surrounding it, how can we build on these many reactions and learn about how best to leverage social media and public opinion through producing effective – but nuanced – advocacy campaigns?

Leave us your views in the comments below!

Further links outlining the lessons other human rights professionals are taking from the campaign:

By Allison Tamer and Laura Reed. Allison and Laura are graduate students in the M.A.
program in Human Rights Studies at Columbia University. Allison’s research
focuses on violence against women in conflict settings, and Laura’s area of focus is human rights, transitional justice and representations of conflict in the media.

LGBT Equality in Africa: Somewhere Over the Rainbow?

By Kristen Thompson, student at Columbia University

“We are holy, angry people, and we are singing for our lives”

Activists in NYC protest new anti-gay legislation outside the Nigerian Mission to the UN

What do you do when your government is trying to criminalize your identity?  For Nigerian LGBT rights activist Ifeanyi Orazulike, the answer is: fight back.  On Monday I joined Ifeanyi and other activists outside the Permanent Mission of Nigeria to the United Nations to protest the anti-gay “Same-Gender Marriage Bill” passed by the Nigerian Senate, which currently awaits the approval or veto of President Goodluck Jonathan.

But this bill is not really about marriage.  It broadly defines “same-sex marriage” as including all same-sex relationships, and charges people who “witness,” “aid” or “abet” such relationships with imprisonment for up to five years.  It’s a modern day witch-hunt, which puts LGBT rights activists and HIV/AIDS service providers for the LGBT population, like Ifeanyi, in particular peril. This is insult on top of severe injury – today Nigerian same-sex relationships are punished with up to 14 years in prison in some regions, and with lashing and death by stoning in others.

Ifeanyi heads the International Centre on Advocacy for the Right to Health (ICARH), which provides HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, outreach and education services to men who have sex with men (MSM) in Nigeria. Even in the midst of this political maelstrom he told me he is eager to go back home because there is much work to do, even though he knows his life is in danger.

Today he and fellow activists solemnly sang in front of the mission and passersby: “We are holy, angry people / We are singing, singing for our lives.”

Pride and Prejudice

Nigerian LGBT rights activist Ifeanyi Orazulike

I met Ifeanyi when he spoke at a SIPA event I organized with the Human Rights Working Group, GLIPA, and others on November 22nd called Pride and Prejudice: Perspectives on Homophobia and LGBTQI Rights in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Betsy Apple, Adjunct SIPA Faculty Member started the discussion with a few sobering statistics:

  • Roughly one-third of all countries in the world criminalize homosexual conduct or identity.
  • Five countries prescribe the death penalty to same-sex sexual conduct.

She said, “Criminalization criminalizes identity; when you are an illegal person, it’s very difficult for you to do everything, from love who you choose, have access to health and education, have freedom of speech and movement and expression, be able to participate in the public life of your country, be able to protect yourself from violence and discrimination.”

The film trailer of Call Me Kuchu (trailer below) clearly illustrates this struggle unfolding for LGBT rights in Africa. It highlights Ugandan activist David Kato, who was recently brutally murdered after a Ugandan newspaper printed the names, addresses and photos of LGBT activists alongside the headline “Hang Them.”



Homophobia and the Spread of HIV/AIDS

For Ifeanyi, the words and images of Call Me Kuchu strike close to home.  He held back tears as he discussed the struggles ICARH faces in combating HIV/AIDS in Nigeria – MSM face stigma and discrimination which cause them to avoid seeking care altogether.  This is especially problematic in a country where the HIV prevalence rate among MSM is 13.5%, three times higher than the national rate.

Dr. Cheikh Traore, Senior Policy Advisor for Sexual Diversity and HIV/AIDS at the United Nations Development Programme underscored the problem of homophobia in combating HIV/AIDS, sharing the results of a  2009 study on MSM in Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana which showed MSM are more vulnerable to HIV due to human rights violations against them.  They are blackmailed by health workers after disclosing their sexual orientation and face physical violence, including by government or police officials.  All this adds up to MSM being further discouraged from seeking health care services.

From Hand-Wringing to Action

Jessica Stern, Director of Programs at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission rounded out the panel.  As the first researcher on LGBT rights at Human Rights Watch she conducted fact-finding missions in South Africa, where she reported on the brutal murder of a 19-year old lesbian who was beaten and killed by a mob in the township of Khayelitsha near Cape Town.

Jessica noted that this happened in South Africa, a country which outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation and is also the first African country to legalize same-sex marriage. In South Africa, transgender men and lesbians are often still targeted for violence and discrimination.

So, what can we do when law and policy only go so far in protecting LGBT rights? Jessica offered some suggestions:

  • Educate the public about their rights.  If people don’t know their rights – to HIV treatment, social services, and privacy, for example – it’s very difficult to access them.  They must also be aware of their government’s anti-LGBT policies so that they can best protect themselves.
  • Train authorities.  In many countries, police target transgender women for discrimination.  They may also refuse to take reports on crimes against LGBT people.  It’s critical to look at how laws are being implemented on the ground and have a proactive strategy for using them to affirm peoples’ rights.
  • Build stronger movements.  Lived experience is essential to any strategy, and activists working on the frontlines know what needs to be done. Jessica left us to ponder, “How can we interrogate our different places to contribute in solidarity with local struggles?”

Feel free to leave a comment below.  How can we interrogate our different places in society (school, internship, job, social network, etc.) to contribute in solidarity to local LGBT struggles?  What are your thoughts on the topic? 

Kristen is a Master of International Affairs Candidate ‘13 at Columbia University, concentrating in Human Rights.  She is the incoming President of GLIPA (SIPA’s LGBTQ group).