Two recent events highlight the scourge of rebel leaders in Central Africa who use child soldiers to commit atrocities — the Kony2012 Internet campaign by the advocacy group, Invisible Children, which supports U.S.-led military action against the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, Joseph Kony, and the International Criminal Court’s guilty verdict against the warlord Thomas Lubanga in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Accompanying these developments has been widespread praise for two of the international community’s preferred means of ending mass conflict — military intervention and international justice.
Largely overlooked, however, is the fact that, in pursuing rebel leaders in central Africa, the United States and the I.C.C. have cooperated with the Ugandan and Congolese governments, which themselves are responsible for murder, forced displacement, rape and torture of civilians over the last 15 years. These crimes have been committed by state actors or their rebel proxies. Lubanga’s Union of Congolese Patriots, for example, was heavily backed by Uganda and Rwanda — a point which the international court’s prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, deliberately ignored in the case against Lubanga because it would have jeopardized his good working relations with Ugandan officials.
Crimes committed by the Ugandan and Congolese governments are hardly a thing of the past. A U.N. report last week detailed human rights violations committed by the Congolese security forces — including murder, torture and arbitrary arrests — during last year’s volatile election period. Last week the Ugandan government arrested the opposition leader Kizza Besigye, and attacked protesters in Kampala — the latest in a string of crackdowns since the Ugandan elections early last year.
Many commentators have questioned why the Arab Spring hasn’t spread south when many of the same conditions for revolution pertain in Sub-Saharan Africa. One key reason is that governments such as those in Uganda and Congo — which have faced continuous protests over state violence, corruption, rigged elections and rising commodity prices — receive unwavering support from international actors such as the United States and the I.C.C., which either turn a blind eye to government atrocities or naïvely facilitate them. By allying so closely to these regimes, international attempts to bring peace to this region have entrenched state impunity and may ultimately prolong conflict.
When President Obama sent 100 American military advisers to support the Ugandan government’s campaign against the Lord’s Resistance Army last October, it was the latest move in a long-standing military relationship. Since the 1990s, Washington has viewed Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s government as a key regional ally against the Sudanese government during Khartoum’s wars in South Sudan and Darfur, the “terrorist” threat of the L.R.A., and most recently Al Shabab in Somalia. Washington’s political, military and economic aid to Uganda has propped up Museveni’s regime and strengthened the role of the armed forces in everyday politics. One reason that widespread protests in Uganda in early 2011 did not transform into another Tahrir Square was that the Ugandan armed forces — nourished for years on Museveni’s corrupt patronage, funded mainly by the United States — remained fiercely loyal to the president, including when asked to fire on innocent civilians.
Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court has relied on Museveni and the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, for the referral of their conflicts to the court, the security of its investigators, and assistance in identifying and transporting witnesses and gathering evidence. In January 2004, the I.C.C. prosecutor appeared side-by-side with Museveni in London to announce the opening of international court investigations in Uganda. Two weeks ago, Ocampo announced that he would soon visit Kinshasa to meet President Kabila and “thank him for his support” during the Lubanga investigations. From the outset, the close working relationship between the I.C.C. and the Ugandan and Congolese governments has allowed the latter to focus the court’s attention on atrocities committed by rebel leaders while insulating themselves from prosecution.
Museveni and Kabila have proven masterful at making themselves indispensable to international actors. Unquestioning international cooperation with the Ugandan and Congolese governments has allowed them to appear as agents of peace, security and justice while continuing to commit abuses against their citizens. That the United States and the I.C.C. voiced no concern while Museveni and Kabila cracked down on the political opposition during last year’s elections has emboldened them. The claim by the I.C.C. and its supporters that the court deters criminal behavior and therefore contributes to lasting peace rings hollow when state crimes are committed under its watchful eye.
Addressing the crimes committed by rebel leaders like Kony and Lubanga is vital to the achievement of long-term peace and security in central Africa. However, international military and judicial interventions in this region to date risk not only ignoring government atrocities but actively encouraging them.
Phil Clark is a lecturer in comparative and international politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and co-founder of Oxford Transitional Justice Research.