Kony YouTube video grabs spotlight, but workings of international justice are more slow and sure

Photo/Mike Lovett

Professor Richard Gaskins

Joseph Kony is world famous, although far from the most threatening fugitive currently defying an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court (ICC). From the perspective of a Brandeis professor in The Hague, where nine undergraduates are spending the semester studying international law and human rights, the Kony story is a massive detour on the path to global justice.The main path has its own important challenges.

Some of these challenges became clearer during recent weeks, as two different Hague courts released judgments in historic, seemingly endless trials. In March the ICC ruled in the case of Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Diyulo—the first conviction announced by this important court in its ten-year history.  In the interests of streamlining the case, criminal charges were narrowly focused on enlisting or conscripting child soldiers, leaving to later prosecutions the more horrendous crimes of murder, rape, and wholesale destruction of Central African communities.

While the Lubanga evidence was often dramatic enough to capture the imagination of any YouTube follower, what happens in a real-life court room weakens viral passion. Child witnesses tell conflicting tales; they recant earlier testimony under pressure; they blur the boundaries between voluntary participation and coercion (although under the legal code all that matters is their age -- under 15). Prosecutors face enormous challenges in presenting courtroom evidence of mass atrocities: fairness to the defense requires disclosing information sources, but may also put local informants in peril. There are reasons, in short, why it took the ICC four years and a 600-page ruling to reach this milestone along the path to justice. Still obscuring that path are the sentencing phase, plus more years for Lubanga to appeal.

And just days ago a different Hague court, moving at an equally measured pace, announced the conviction of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, whose real offenses, spread out over several countries, vastly exceeded the mayhem attributed to Joseph Kony. Taylor is truly a pioneer in exploring the full meaning of the term “impunity.” The Taylor judgment itself was constrained by legal definitions, which narrowed Taylor’s responsibility mainly to the roles of “aiding and abetting.”  It reminds us that criminal trials are painstakingly slow, consumed with technical issues of legal evidence, and stretched—almost to the breaking point—between the demands of legal fairness and the cries of outrage from victims and the larger public.

Soon pre-trial proceedings will begin in The Hague in the case of the former ruler of Ivory Coast, and Sudanese President al-Bashir remains a far more imposing ICC fugitive than Kony.  

The journey toward global justice moves at a slower pace than the viral spread of skillfully contrived videos. Legal experts will study these new cases for signs that we are on the right path, slow but sure, toward deterring future atrocities. Catching fugitives and putting them on trial has become an obligatory part of this journey, but by no means sufficient to ensure final success.  While the courts grind on, it is essential for nations and organizations to find other means to address the social and economic conditions that make it possible for the Lubangas, the Taylors and the Konys to carry out their destruction. 

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Professor Richard Gaskins, director of the Legal Studies Program and the Joseph M. Proskauer Professor of Law and Social Welfare.

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