Resistance to Global LGBT Norms

International Relations is not normally thought of as the go-to place for lessons on the protection of gays, lesbians, trans, bi and queer people. But in recent times, it has been possible to get the impression that something about the practice of international politics has changed; that norms regarding sexual orientation and gender identity were gaining prominence and exerting discernible influence. In politics and policy making, one could point to the Yogyakarta principles. In mainstream IR theory, one could assess the steady stream of work that has arisen from theories of norm change and entrepreneurship and consider how they might apply to the LGBT case.

yogyakarta-principles

The Secretary General of the United Nations has launched a campaign for the protection of the human rights of LGBT people (with its own Bollywood movie clip!) He has said that the protection of human rights is “one of the great, neglected human rights challenges of our time.” In 2011, the UN released its first ever report (pdf) into the human rights of LGBT people. It states that:

a pattern of human rights violations emerges that demands a response. Governments and inter-governmental bodies have often overlooked violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The mandate of the Human Rights Council requires it to address this gap: the Council should promote “universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction of any kind and in a fair and equal manner. (see here, paragraph 2)

The question of how “Governments and inter-governmental bodies” might go about looking at and responding to violence and rights abuse against LGBT people is a complex one. Knee-jerk responses that impose aid conditionality measures, such as that suggested by UK PM David Cameron in the case of Uganda, are probably the least helpful route. Nonetheless, some form of conditionality, or assessment of the rights afforded to LGBT peoples, has become a standard within the repertoire of pro-LGBT rights states and their foreign policy advocates. Continue reading

Advertisements

What We Talked About At ISA: Researching Sexuality in ‘Difficult’ Contexts

In September 2009, Ugandan Parliamentarian David Bahati introduced a draft ‘Anti Homosexuality Bill’ that proposed enhancing existing punishments for homosexual conduct in the Ugandan Penal Code, introducing new ‘related offences’ including ‘aiding and abetting’ homosexuality, ‘conspiracy to engage’ in homosexuality, the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, or ‘failure to disclose the offence’ of homosexuality to authorities within 24 hours, and mandating the death penalty for a select class of offences categorized as ‘aggravated homosexuality’. The bill remained bottled up in parliamentary committees for the duration of the 8th Parliament, thanks in large part to a sophisticated local campaign that sought to bring international pressure to bear on the government of President Yoweri Museveni, but has since been reintroduced in the current 9th Parliament and therefore remains a live concern. In August 2010, I travelled to Uganda to interview a range of actors associated with ongoing debates over sexuality in the country. Rather than commenting on the urgent and pressing substantive concerns at issue in these debates, at an ISA panel entitled ‘Researching sexuality in difficult contexts’, I chose to reflect on some of the methodological dilemmas I encountered in the field, for which my training in international relations had left me unprepared. Emboldened by recent ISA panels on storytelling and auto-ethnography (and utterly bored by what passes for mainstream IR), these reflections take the form of excerpts from my diary (italicized), interspersed with the more censorious, academic voice that I trotted out at ISA. (I make no apology for not writing about the more ‘serious’ issues at stake—on this occasion—because it occurs to me that where sexuality is concerned, the pursuit of fun can raise deadly serious questions, making distinctions between the trivial and the serious difficult to sustain.)

Uganda, August 2010: I am here to do interviews and I spend most of my day setting them up, preparing for them, travelling to or from them, or conducting them. The rest of the time I hang out, people watch, trying to piece together a picture of how life outside heteronormativity survives in a climate that seems—on the surface at least—as inhospitable as Uganda is supposed to be. On Friday, Al (name changed, and this account provided with permission) invited me to a strip-tease. This was going to be a straight strip-tease, but one that some of the gay men went to so that they could watch the straight men getting off on watching the women strip. It sounded convoluted, but unmissable. Plus, I’d never been to a straight strip-tease, so it seemed important to plug this gaping orifice in my sexual history. We entered a dimly lit hall and took seats at the back in a group near the bar. I think I was the only brown man there. There was also one white man in the whole place, in our group. He had evidently been to the place before, and because he came with the same motivations as Al, he had been traumatized on a previous occasion by the way the women flocked to him (money?). So Al was instructed to tell the emcee (a short guy dressed in a white track suit) to make sure that the women didn’t come to our corner. The real attraction, from the point of view of the gay guys, was that the women sometimes got the straight guys to get on stage and strip. Al told the emcee to do his best to encourage this possibility. Call it Straight Guy for the Queer Eye. I was impressed by the brazenness with which Al communicated all this to the emcee. As for the show, let’s just say it took the ‘tease’ out of strip-tease. The first woman (girl? all the performers looked like they were in their 30s, but they could have been younger and prematurely aged by their work) danced to some vaguely familiar Western pop number. She was followed by another woman with bigger hips. Somebody in the group, setting himself up as my informant, tells me that she is ‘a real African woman’. She danced to Shania Twain’s ‘From this Moment On’ (a song I played to my last (and final, I think) girlfriend on the first day I met her, after a year-long correspondence). Just when Shania reached the second verse, the woman dropped her panties. None of the performers took off their bras. ‘African men aren’t interested in breasts’, my self-appointed informant intones. The next half-hour is a blur of female anatomy. So here I am, in a country that people have been calling ‘conservative’ and that American evangelist Rick Warren has decided is ripe for transformation into the world’s first ‘purpose driven’ nation, looking at more naked women in ten minutes than I have seen in ten years, to the soundtrack of my failed romantic history.

Continue reading

#Kony2012 from Advocacy to Militarisation

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.

Now that’s a rather curious formulation of “diplomatic efforts”. Nowhere in the text is there any mention of the human rights records of the Ugandan or DRC armies, nor any suggestion that they are anything but (albeit junior) ‘partners’ in this military endeavour. The preamble makes repeated mention of ‘help’ to regional governments, and one line of text hints at problems (to “address shortcomings in current efforts”), but it is clear that these are deficiencies of coordination and military effectiveness, not of human rights concerns. The claims previously made in defence of the campaign (“we do not defend any of the abuses perpetrated by the Ugandan government or by the Ugandan army”) have rather evaporated in the transition to a formal Resolution, and Keesey and Jenkins make no complaint of that elision. Although recently rather keen to harness #Kony2012’s popularity, Human Rights Watch and others have long catalogued systematic abuses by the UPDF which match the Lord’s Resistance Army closely for brutality. The record of the FARDC (the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo) is worse still. Exact and proportional figures are hard to pinpoint, but there is no question that they are major (and quite possibly the main) perpetrators of rape, terrorism and atrocity in Eastern DRC.

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.

Kony 2012 and The Choir of Saviors: You got a song you wanna sing for me?

You got a song you wanna sing for me?
Sing a song, singing man.
Sing another song, singing man.
Sing a song for me.
One for the pressing, two for the cross,
Three for the blessing, four for the loss.
Kid holdin’ a weapon, walk like a corpse
In the face of transgression, military issue Kalash
Nikova or machete or a pitchfork.
He killing ’cause he feel he got nothin’ to live for
In a war taking heads for men like Charles Taylor
And never seen the undisclosed foreign arms dealer.
Thirteen-year-old killer, he look thirty-five,
He changed his name to Little No-Man-Survive.
When he smoke that leaf shorty believe he can fly.
He loot and terrorize and shoot between the eyes.
Who to blame? Its a shame the youth was demonized.
Wishing he could rearrange the truth to see the lies
And he wouldn’t have to raise his barrel to target you,
His heart can’t get through the years of scar tissue.

-“Singing Man“, The Roots

60 million people and counting have now heard about Invisible Children’sKony 2012“. Criticism of the group has been substantial and judicious. The group has defended themselves. Humorous memes are proliferating. Over-exposure has already begun to create awareness fatigue. Yet there is a serious issue largely unaddressed: the most troubling elements of the “Kony 2012” phenomenon are not unique to Invisible Children, but reflect serious moral and political problems with the pursuit of international criminal justice, and in particular the mission and politics of the International Criminal Court and their controversial prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo.

To put it bluntly: while Jason Russell addresses his audience in the same way he addresses his five-year-old son Gavin, which is clearly inappropriate given the complexity of the issues he’s asking us to consider, Russell’s framing of the evil of Joseph Kony and “our” responsibility to stop him is importantly similar to the narrative of international criminal law, and Ocampo in particular. We should not be too quick to denounce the moral idiocy of Russell as a personal failing – his sentimental and messianic film represents a revealing apotheosis rather than a transgressive break from our sense of international justice. There are unpleasant resonances between Russell and Ocampo – the ICC prosecutor has already praised the group, saying,

“They’re giving a voice to people who before no-one knew about and no-one cared about and I salute them.”

But the commonalities run deeper than a strategic endorsement and should give us pause before we conclude that while Invisible Children may be unscrupulous and ill-informed, some form of outside intervention is needed to save the children of the Great Lakes region of Africa (to say  nothing of the adults being killed) – and yes, an arrest warrant and possible trial by the ICC is as much an intervention as a military invasion. Russell’s call to “stop Kony” is disturbing beyond his narcissism and the organisation’s inept policies and campaigns, his messianic moralising, in which he positions himself (and those like him who just need to be roused to action) as the hero for the powerless victim, is a single melody line in the score that guides the choir singing for international justice. His self-regarding indignation, and our discomfort, should inspire introspection into the desires that lead us to demand that Kony stand trial at the ICC or to insist that “we” must do something to stop the evil that besets that part of Africa.

Continue reading

“Can I Tell You The Bad Guy’s Name?”: A Virtual Read-In and Comment On #Kony2012 and Badvocacy

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).

The second is from Adam Branch (who just has a book out on Uganda, war and intervention) on the wrongness, and also the irrelevance to Northern Ugandans, of Invisible Children:

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.

The third, from Teddy Ruge, beautiful in its rage:

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?

But what has been the content of this unbearable counter-critique? Continue reading