In spite of his generous blogging output, our own Pablo K has also conspired to write, and now successfully defend, a doctoral thesis on Rethinking War/Rape: Feminism, Critical Explanation and the Study of Wartime Sexual Violence, with Special Reference to the Eastern Democratic of Congo. Interrogators-in-chief were Maria Stern and Mark Hoffman. Congratulations, Dr Kirby. We’d tell you to write about it, but we probably don’t need to.
“Cursory and pedantic”. So says IntLawGrrls’ Fionnuala Ní Aoláin of the just released Human Security Report 2012 (hereafter HSR). You may recall the team behind the HSR from their last intervention, which upset the applecart over the estimate of 5.4 million excess deaths in Congo (DRC) since 1998 and which also claimed a six decade decline in global organised violence. The target this time round is a series of putative myths about wartime sexual violence (those myths being: that extreme sexual violence is the norm in conflict; that sexual violence in conflict is increasing; that strategic rape is the most common – and growing – form of sexual violence in conflict; that domestic sexual violence isn’t an issue; and that only males perpetrate rape and only females are raped), each of which the authors claim to overturn through a more rigorous approach to available evidence. Along the way an account is also given of the source of such myths, which is said to be NGO and international agency funding needs, which lead them to highlight the worst cases and so to perpetuate a commonsense view of war rape that is “both partial and misleading”.
[HSR’s view is] insulting because it assumes that those who work on sexual violence – like me – those who have sat in a room of women, where over 75% of the women have experienced rape – as I have – listening to story after story of rape, forced marriage, and raising children born as a result of rape, it assumes that we are thinking about what would make the best headline, not what are the facts, and not what would help the survivors of sexual violence.
Although the attention spike and mainstream media attention on #Kony2012 has receded, not least thanks to Jason ‘Radical’ Russell’s own brush with infamy, the implications of muscular-liberalism-as-social-media-experiment continue to unfold. My feed at least continues to be peppered with anger towards Invisible Children from informed activists and scholars (although Norbert Mao, for one, takes a much more positive view and Jason Stearns makes a few qualifications of the anti-case worth reading). On Saturday, CEO Ben Keesey and ‘Director of Ideas Development’ Jedidiah Jenkins (formerly ‘Director of Ideology’: yes, really) released a short teaser video promising a sequel to #Kony2012 and declaring that the campaign was “working”. Staying stubbornly loyal to the understanding of foreign policy decision-making expressed in the original narrative, this was said to be because the people at the top were now being forced to respond to an issue they previously hadn’t cared about/known about, all thanks to the public pressure of predominantly young activist-citizens. The major consequence of this pressure being the introduction on March 12 of a Resolution in the US House of Representatives, sponsored by Jim McGovern (a Democrat) and Ed Royce (a Republican), to end Kony’s atrocities and bring justice to Norther Uganda. There’s now a Senate version of the Resolution too, taken by Keesey and Jenkins to dispel those loose accusations of ‘slacktivism’ against Invisible Children and its supporters.
But what does the Resolution actually ask for? Having reaffirmed previous declarations, it:
…calls on the Secretary of State and heads of other government agencies to undertake diplomatic efforts with partner nations focused on—
(A) expanding the number of capable regional military forces deployed to protect civilians and pursue LRA commanders; (B) enhancing cooperation and cross-border coordination among regional governments; and (C) promoting increased contributions from European and other donor nations for regional security efforts.
All of this sets a brutal precedent. The vagueness of the call for action and policy detail, lost amongst the emotion ratcheting of being a ‘doer’ rather than a ‘sayer’, opened the door to any number of Liberal Saviour Hawk Military Industrial fantasies (to adapt Teju Cole). This is what groups like the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars warned of, a not-so-creeping militarisation of East and Central Africa. As apparently obvious as stopping Kony’s evil in a hail of righteous bullets cycles seems to Russell and Co., the cycle of insurgency and counter-insurgency tends to be draped at each stage in stark aggressions, with those regional military partners enacting their own ‘invisible’ massacres as they go.
Conspiratorial ideas of Invisible Children as a front for the US government aside, there is clearly a whole set of non-humanitarian interests at play here. I doubt there is any real appetite, and certainly very little capacity, in policy circles for any kind of escalation of direct US military involvement in the area, but then ‘support’ and ‘advice’ for regional allies and proxies has more traditionally been the mark of foreign policy. What those exponential click counts will translate into in policy terms thus remains open, but the signs aren’t great.
UPDATE (10 March): Material is coming thick and fast on #Kony2012, so I’m adding three recent interventions. The first is from Ismael Beah, he of child soldier fame, on CNN (apologies for the awful interviewer).
My frustration with the group has largely reflected the concerns expressed so eloquently by those individuals who have been willing to bring the fury of Invisible Children’s true believers down upon themselves in order to point out what is wrong with this group’s approach: the warmongering, the self-indulgence, the commercialization, the reductive and one-sided story it tells, its portrayal of Africans as helpless children in need of rescue by white Americans, and the fact that civilians in Uganda and Central Africa may have to pay a steep price in their own lives so that a lot of young Americans can feel good about themselves, and a few can make good money. This, of course, is sickening, and I think that Kony 2012 is a case of Invisible Children having finally gone too far. They are now facing a backlash from people of conscience who refuse to abandon their capacity to think for themselves.
This IC campaign is a perfect example of how fund-sucking NGO’s survive. “Raising awareness” (as vapid an exercise as it is) on the level that IC does, costs money. Loads and loads of money. Someone has to pay for the executive staff, fancy offices, and well, that 30-minute grand-savior, self-crowning exercise in ego stroking—in HD—wasn’t free. In all this kerfuffle, I am afraid everyone is missing the true aim of IC’s brilliant marketing strategy. They are not selling justice, democracy, or restoration of anyone’s dignity. This is a self-aware machine that must continually find a reason to be relevant. They are, in actuality, selling themselves as the issue, as the subject, as the panacea for everything that ails me as the agency-devoid African. All I have to do is show up in my broken English, look pathetic and wanting. You, my dear social media savvy click-activist, will shed a tear, exhaust Facebook’s like button, mobilize your cadre of equally ill-uninformed netizens to throw money at the problem.
Cause, you know, that works so well in the first world.
Glenna Gordon‘s 2008 image of the Invisible Children founders in cod-Rambo pose with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army now defines the #Kony2012 backlash. Jason ‘Radical’ Russell – he who speaks excitedly of ‘war rooms’ – and his compatriots have thus far notched up 12 million-odd Vimeo hits and over 32 million YouTube hits with their 30-minute hymn to awareness, social media, atrocity prevention and youth power. A simulacrum of solidarity now not quite besieged, but at least peppered, by an array of critiques and counter-points, almost always from scholars and activists with their own well-established records of engagement and internationalism.
That backlash is now, predictably enough, giving rise to a counter-backlash from newly enlivened global citizens, and the predominant form taken by this response is itself instructive. Comment threads on posts like Mark’s consistently reveal a nascent activist consciousness which is hugely fragile, but also aggressive. Although many presumably did not know of Joseph Kony until this week (and in this minimal sense, #Kony2012 clearly ‘worked’), they are now so outraged at even the hint of complexity or counter-point that they denounce others as self-promoters, ignorami (ignoramuses?), complacent and/or complicit (by some unspecified metric) in human suffering. The juxtaposition is telling: the fresh anger and one-dimensional vigour of discovering atrocity and of being “empowered” (however vaguely) to end it is simply too appealing to withstand reasoned discussion. And so newly-minted ‘doers’ find themselves in the position of having to attack those old established ‘cynics’, Ugandans and Uganda hands among them, in whose very name they “won’t stop”. Say, at what point exactly did common humanity come to mean lecturing Ugandans that they were “ungrateful” and “negative” for pointing out that Museveni is not so nice either?
Unwatchable lasts just over 6 minutes, but is intended to linger far longer. A project of Save The Congo, it was apparently turned down by larger charities on the grounds that it was too extreme. Deploying liberal doses of slo-mo and orchestral overture, it shows an armed assault on a whiter-than-white (and blonder-than-blonde) family somewhere in rural England. The teenage daughter is gang-raped on the kitchen table while her father is forced to watch, and her parents are eventually mutilated and killed on their front lawn while the soldiers laugh and film them on mobile phones. At one point we see a soldier cowering to avoid the scenes wrought by his comrades. The youngest daughter is killed trying to escape. In other words, a BBFC 18-rated piece of atrocity porn doubling as a viral advocacy campaign.
A small clickable box sits screen top-right throughout. It reads: ‘Make It Stop’. The tagline: ‘Warning: this film contains sexualised violence you and your mobile phone manufacturer may find disturbing’. The pay off being that this is really about the DRC, but that it will take this happening to white people for you to notice. Yes, this is another campaign about the resource curse and another entry in the catalogue of rape atrocity ratcheting, now with the obligatory twitter hashtag (#bloodminerals) and a petition demanding: a) that EU companies be forced into transparent supply chains for coltan and the like; and b) that ‘swift and severe’ action be taken against any party responsible for violence.
Kate at Wronging Rights picks up on the incoherence of Save the Congo’s accompanying claims:
W…T…F…? Rape is cheaper and much more effective than guns or bullets??? No. Rape is not a “cheap” coercive strategy. It’s time-consuming and it exposes the perpetrators to injury and potential STD infection. Armed groups absolutely use it anyway, but not because it’s cheaper than bullets.
And, [i]f armed groups were to raid a village and force the population to leave by shooting at them, NGOs could be alerted and the UN would have to react?? This is surely news to the scores of NGOs, both local and international, who have worked tirelessly to document and publicize the use of rape as a weapon of war throughout the last decade and a half of conflict in the region.
Look, I realize that grassroots activism often plays a fundamental role in political change, and has been particularly important to the history of the human rights movement, but seriously, this “the news made me sad / I can haz NGO?” nonsense has got to stop. Time to invoke Amanda’s “Love Actually Test” on a wider scale, I think.
Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been accused of a sex crime. After a week of free gossip about sordid secrets concealed by superinjunctions, and in the wake of the Assange controversy, the combination of a high profile financier-cum-left-winger with the whiff of sexualised domination has proved sufficient to displace attention from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which had earned a spike in coverage from a new report on the extent of sexual violence there.
The numbers are appropriately horrifying. Although I can’t access the full American Journal of Public Health paper from my usual entry points (itself frustrating: why lock up your vital statistical research behind a paywall while the media is reporting on it far and wide?), the abstract suggests the following: based on a representative household survey of 3,345 female informants from a 2007 survey added to some population estimates, it is suggested that some 1.7-1.8 million women in Congo have been raped during their lifetimes, and that between 407,000-434,000 (to the nearest thousand) of those have been raped in the last 12 months. A total of 3.1-3.4 million women are estimated to have been victims/survivors of ‘intimate partner sexual violence’, which I assume means not raped by strangers or officially ‘enemy’ soldiers.
Jason Stearns provides some useful context to argue that these numbers are not surprising given previous surveys, if somewhat more solid in methodological terms. The UN has been calling the DRC ‘the rape capital of the world’ for some time now, and there are a significant number of organisations working on these issues in situ. Indeed, the sheer scale of attention to rape in the DRC is spoken of as a logistical problem among those working there. While conducting fieldwork in Goma last year, I spoke to a UNOCHA representative who put their figures (which were not comprehensive) for agencies working on sexual violence in Eastern DRC at 80 international NGOs and over 200 local NGOs, as well as multiple elements of the UN system itself. Properly coordinating work between such a mass of groups (with wildly varying levels of skill and funding) in situations of violence and funding uncertainty is as difficult as you might expect.
This gestures towards one of a number of complexities and problems in the analysis and politics of wartime sexual violence.