Child Soldiers: Learning from Kony2012?

The issue of child soldiers is back on the global agenda, thanks to two major recent developments. In March, Thomas Lubanga became the first person to be convicted by the International Criminal Court. He was found guilty of forcibly recruiting child soldiers to his Union of Congolese Patriots, known as 'the army of children'. The second, most visible development, was the massive popularity growth of web-based film KONY2012. It aims to raise awareness of the activities of Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord who leads the Lord's Resistance Army, calling for the US military to intervene to bring him to justice. Kony and the LRA are known for their brutality and use of child soldiers. Invisible Children's initiative went viral to become an Internet phenomenon. It amassed over 30 million views in 48 hours, at a rate of up to 1 million per hour, mostly in North America, Europe, Asia and Latin America.

It has been hard to miss. In March #STOPKONY became the number one hashtag worldwide. Perhaps you, like me, were one of more than 112 million viewers who went onto YouTube or Vimeo to watch the 29-minute film. Did you see it on Facebook? Do you follow Rihanna on Twitter (14.9 million fans), or Justin Bieber (18.4 million), receiving their tweets #STOPKONY or #KONY2012? Or Jay-Z, Bill Gates, Bono, J.K.Rowling, Oprah or Angelina Jolie? Perhaps you bought an 'Action Kit', wore a bracelet, put up a poster or signed up to give $3 a week. The message is simple and the cash transaction is easy. Donate: you've 'made a difference': you can stop thinking. Indeed, we are actively encouraged us to abandon our capacity for critical thought. The voice over tells us 'we are not studying history, we are shaping it'.

The outpouring of care and energy shown by so many young people springs from a sincere motivation to take action to confront injustice in the world. It demonstrates that we are not as selfish and apathetic as we are constantly being told. But the KONY2012 campaign is really dangerous. The idea that mass social media movements can leverage public opinion to call for foreign military intervention is terrifying.

Scheduled screenings in Northern Uganda had to be abandoned when angry viewers began to shout and throw rocks at the screen. The factual inaccuracies, the overt warmongering and the disregard for the real trauma and suffering of the LRA's victims. The staggering narcissism and the commercialisation. The slick graphics, simplistic and often infantile soundbites and the one-sided story. And the portrayal of 'Africans' as helpless children in need of rescuing by young and idealistic Westerners.

According to YouTube statistics, KONY2012 was most popular with girls aged 13-17, boys aged 13-17 and young men aged 18-24. Children and young people were also the driving force behind the film's viral exposure. Young adults aged 18-30 were twice as likely to view the film as older adults.

While many have questioned KONY2012's simplistic paradigm, its success in raising awareness among 'normally apathetic' Western youth has been almost universally praised. However, the film presents US military intervention as the only solution. KONY2012 is attempting to recruit children and young people to their belligerent campaign, trying to persuade 13-17 yr olds that military force is the answer and that US violence will heal the world. This is morally repugnant. Ugandan civilians will have to pay the ultimate price so that some naïve Westerners can feel good about themselves.

Then comes the question: 'What can we do?' Moved by the suffering in the world, many young people feel called to act. First, we can educate ourselves. We can study child rights. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world. Everyone is onboard, except for the USA and Somalia (and Somalia plan to ratify). It obliges all states to ensure that people under 15 yrs don't become soldiers (Art. 38). An Optional Protocol extends this, specifying that no one under 18 can be recruited compulsorily and that no under 18s can take a direct part in hostilities. The African Charter on the Rights and the Welfare the Child is stronger: no one under 18 can be recruited by a State, under any circumstances. Under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the use of child soldiers under 15 is a 'war crime'. This is how Lubanga was convicted.

So international law is one tool we can work with. We also need to understand the social, political, historical and cultural contexts of the issues in question. Some child soldiers in the world are coerced, but many volunteer to fight. Why is this? And what about child soldiers in our own countries?

As for direct action, instead of asking how Western governments can intervene to solve Africa's conflicts, we might ask how our own governments are causing and prolonging those conflicts. Do we challenge the militarisation of Africa in the name of the 'Global War on Terror' and efforts to control oil resources? As consumers, do we make choices that contribute to water and other natural resource shortages, potentially (but never inevitably) fueling conflict?

The reaction to KONY2012 shows the world how much children and young people care. When our energy and commitment is combined with our ability to think for ourselves and critically examine what we are told, we can be a powerful movement for peace.

Helen Kearney