Weekend Reading

The thrill of clicking on links, and watching readings appear, can never be replaced.

In the first days of the Great War, Britain intended only to detain suspect enemy aliens as prisoners of war. Pressured by Parliament to arrest all enemy aliens, British Home Secretary Reginald McKenna resisted, saying he would proceed under the Hague Conventions, in which the military was responsible for designating enemy aliens for arrest. Internment, he noted, was reserved only for enemy aliens who were military personnel or seen as dangerous to the nation. After the Lusitania’s sinking, however, the political resistance vanished, all military-age enemy aliens were rounded up, and civilians were transformed into prisoners of war.

As declarations of war multiplied across the globe between signatories of the Hague Conventions, a complex bureaucracy of detention began removing groups of civilians en masse from society…. In November 1914, Germany moved to arrest all British, French, and Russian men between the ages of seventeen and fifty-five, and by war’s end held more than 111,000 enemy aliens. During the same period, France interned 60,000 German and Austro-Hungarian civilians; Bulgaria rounded up more than 14,000 Serbian and Croatian noncombatants; and Romania held 6,000 civilians, mostly Germans and Austro-Hungarians.

[…]

In an era of widespread conscription, any male of fighting age was a potential soldier. Generals worried that able-bodied foreigners deported to their home countries on one day might show up on the battlefield the next, further discouraging any desire to make distinctions between civilians and combatants. Internees knew that compared to life in the trenches, a concentration camp offered relative safety, but internment had its own price. Even where they had spent decades as part of a community, foreigners’ businesses were ransacked or shuttered, or their assets seized by governments. Internees were not soldiers, but instead a new kind of low-grade hostage. Not expected to fight or die, they only endured.

Boko Haram’s relentless attacks against individuals tied to the Kanuri establishment demonstrate its antipathy toward the northeast’s existing hierarchy. In areas it has captured, Boko Haram has allegedly seized the property of local notables and allocated it among its followers. The contours of a vicious class struggle within Kanuri society are readily evident.

In addition to the northeastern elites, Boko Haram’s worldview is at odds with rural Kanuri communities. Salafism – both its peaceful and violent varieties – remains primarily an urban phenomenon in Nigeria’s northeast. Cities tend to have a higher concentration of youths bereft of established kinship networks and therefore attracted to the universalist message espoused by Islamic revivalists. Conversely, the countryside serves as a bastion of traditionalism, with many Muslims practicing syncretic forms of Islam that incorporate elements of indigenous religions.

Boko Haram’s transition to a largely rural-based insurgency has placed the Salafi-jihadi movement in an operational environment where the majority of inhabitants regard it as an alien interloper. Rather than adjust its messaging to appeal toward the wary peasantry, Boko Haram appears to have elected to pursue a strategy of armed coercion in order to secure local compliance. This approach helps account for the surge in civilian fatalities as well as Boko Haram’s seemingly growing reliance on conscription and monetary compensation to replenish its ranks.

Acholi Opinions of Ongwen’s Arrest

I’ve written a little bit over the last month or so about Dominic Ongwen’s arrest and the charges he faces. There are a pair of recent publications that shed light on the heated debate over his arrest and trial.

For background: Dominic Ongwen was abducted by the LRA as a young boy and inducted into the rebel group, where he gradually rose in ranks to become a high-level brigade commander. As many have noted, he may be the first conscripted child soldier to be charged with conscripting children, a status that makes his case controversial.

Beyond all of this controversy, many in the Acholi community have long pushed for reconciliation rather than prosecution or military action as a means of ending the war. The radio programs I studied over the last couple of years are just one example of efforts to encourage rebels to demobilize and return home without punishment. The national Amnesty Act is another, and the mato oput traditional reconciliation ceremony is another. There have been numerous efforts at reconciliation that don’t follow the usual retributive justice model. This isn’t to say that these efforts don’t have their own set of critics – they do – but that the question of whether or not Ongwen should face trial at the ICC is complicated.

At the end of January, two pieces were published that speak to the complexity of Ongwen’s arrest on the ground in Acholiland.

First, the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative, an interfaith group that was created in northern Uganda to address the LRA conflict, issued a press release on Ongwen’s trial which puts the rest of the world on blast:

The question we all need to ask ourselves, is, how did Ongwen Dominic, in the first place, end up in the hands of the LRA? We have been informed from the most reliable sources that Ongwen Dominic was abducted, by force, at the age of ten years old, by LRA. In this context, we believe that there was, of course, some negligence, on the part of the government of Uganda, which had failed to protect numerous unfortunate children of Northern Uganda for years. On the other hand, the LRA that abducted Ongwen Dominic at tender age, and destroyed his humanity completely, by making him to becoming a mere killing machine in its hands, should be held both accountable and responsible for all that Ongwen Dominic did during the LRA captivity all these years. We also think that the international community did not take immediate action to arrest the unbearable situation of the LRA in time. A lot of mistakes have been made even by the international community, who did not have an eye to see us, as human beings here in Northern Uganda. Instead, we have all become ‘invisible people’ in the eyes of the international community.

The press release also argues for Ongwen to undergo traditional reconciliation in Gulu instead of facing trial at the ICC. This statement includes a strong critique of the retributive justice system:

Ongwen Dominic, as a victim of circumstances, should not be punished twice, by humanity. Ongwen Dominic, as a victim of circumstances should not be taken to the Hague in the Netherthelands in Europe. As a matter of course, Ongwen Dominic should have been brought back home, in order, to go through the rituals of ‘Mato Oput’ (Reconciliation), as a cleansing mechanism to all that he went through during his time in the LRA captivity. The cultural justice system of Mato Oput is pro-life and holistic in every respect in life. Unlike the Court system in the world, it brings restoration of the broken human relationships. It also brings a complete transformation in the lives of the two communities involved into violent conflict.

It creates a healing process in the hearts of all those who have been wounded, by the war of insurgency. But above all, it brings new life to all the communities who have been affected by violence and death. In the truth-telling process, there are no denials, no lies, and no deceptions, as it is the case in the Court system. Surprisingly, the Court system, which is punitive or retributive, promotes polarization that only leads into ultimate alienation on both sides.

A week later, the Refugee Law Project, a think tank affiliated with Makerere University, published a report on Ongwen’s trial and leading perspectives [pdf] in Gulu. It includes similar indictments of the Ugandan government for allowing LRA violence to continue unabated in the north:

Most participants argued that Ongwen is a victim and will remain so because it was the Government that failed in its responsibility to protect him, prior to his abduction. Ongwen was abducted in Gulu in 1990, at the age of 10 while on his way to school. Sheikh Musa Kilil said, “It was the responsibility of government to protect such a child, a pupil who was going to school”. Reflecting on who a victim is in the context of the LRA, a former abductee noted, “Victims in LRA conflict are all those who were abducted, those who lost their property, body parts, their lives, loved ones and others who have been forced to kill”. Another participant argued that Ongwen is a victim because; “Ongwen was abducted, destroyed and ruined. He was made a teacher of a system whose motto value is, kill to survive”

These opinions are just a few more examples of how complicated and potentially divisive this trial, which begins in August, will be.

Weekend Reading

Read a few links to celebrate Arizona’s statehood, Frederick Douglass’ birthday, or the latest Hallmark holiday:

Not only do we bend the natural world to mathematics and science, then, but we also bend mathematics and science to political ends as well. No calendar is innocent, no temporal system is neutral…

Nationalist attempts to remake the date aren’t new — in perhaps the most famous example, the French Republican Calendar not only reorganized the days and months around a ten-day week called a décade, but also restarted the entire thing at Year I. At the time John Quincy Adams decried it as “superficially frivolous” and “coarsely vulgar,” not to mention “irreligious” — but this was of course the point: the de-Christianization of the calendar, and a temporal arrangement of time with an entirely new set of symbolic compass points. A calendar that was no longer based on saints’ feasts and religious holidays towards one named after the progression of the seasons and the plants and vegetables of nature, where September 22 (the date of the founding of the French Republic), not January 1, was now the beginning of the year, and the year itself was no longer 1792.

Twitter’s trending hashtags suggests that Americans can bring themselves to talk about the #ChapelHIllShooting but they can’t utter their names. They can’t be these people. While it is clear that we don’t need another parade of hoodie-clad white people claiming #IamTrayvon it is striking that there isn’t even an attempt to do so. White America can immediately identify with a racist French satire magazine they’ve never heard of, but can’t possibly stand in solidarity with fellow Americans that also happen to be Muslim.

The straight-forward narrative that makes #JeSuisCharlie so legible to so many people is inaccessible to the marginal. The causes of violence perpetrated by white men is exploded by white supremacist patriarchy’s insistence that each instance of white terror is actually the confluence of psychological illness, the availability of guns, video games, or anything else that doesn’t threaten the racial order or patriarchy head-on.

When uprisings occur, when people that are systematically denied the preconditions of solidarity ––the ability to continually meet each-other unharassed, a common language, the material support to mobilize against one’s oppressors–– find them through perseverance and creativity, the invisible background radiation that maintains their oppression suddenly becomes opaque and solid. The sustained and largely invisible strategies of hegemony are temporarily traded in for the tactics of swift and immediate police violence. To those not paying attention it might seem to come out of nowhere, but for everyone else it is utterly predictable.

Weekend Reading

Just add water.

[T]he prevailing consensus endorsed liberal education. A presidential commission chartered by Harry S. Truman recommended in 1947 that colleges strive to more fully realize democracy “in every phase of living,” promote international understanding, and deploy creative intelligence to solve social problems. College wasn’t a way to get a job or make a buck.

For a long time, the pushback to that philosophy was productive. It forced higher education to be dynamic, to respond to conditions beyond campus, says Mr. Roth, who is president of Wesleyan University and sits on the AAC&U board. People understood that liberal learning served individuals, regardless of their jobs, as well as society at large. That’s no longer true, he says.

A farmer reading the classics or an industrial worker quoting Shakespeare was at one time an honorable character. Today’s news stories lament bartenders with chemistry degrees. “Where once these ‘incongruities’ might have been hailed as signs of a healthy republic,” Mr. Roth writes, “today they are more likely to be cited as examples of a ‘wasted’—nonmonetized—education.”

External “assistance” in Africa proved limited in effect, created debilitating forms of aid dependency, and suppressed the creation of organic movements that can aptly respond to struggles of their time. Therefore, the search for a sovereign consciousness, which when found will give birth to new forms of grassroots activism, must begin with a repudiation of existing arrangements of power between Western donors and their NGO handmaidens in the South. Such a refusal would no doubt be met with resistance and punishment in the form of aid withdrawal by the West, if not worse. But that is the essence of the redemptive battle at hand.

We can only sing our redemption song and emancipate ourselves if we deny the white saviour industrial complex its ideological hold on us, and to do this we must collectively rethink our civil society relations and consciousness as Africans.  Failure to do so will result in us being continuously “chained to the obligation of gratitude” that Madonna implicitly expects. And it will result in Africans losing possession and control of their histories and memories, even if they reside in the form of something as seemingly unimportant as an autopsy report.

Weekend Reading

Weekend Reading forecast says 74% chance of weather happening. Also sports I guess. Have at it:

The constitution was put to a popular vote in the state in 1857 and included two referendums that were to be voted on independently. The first was whether they should reject slavery. Roughly 75 percent of voters opted to reject the adoption of slavery. The second measure was whether or not to exclude black people from the state. About 89 percent of voters cast their vote in favor of excluding black and mixed race people from the state. And thus, the exclusionary aspects of the state constitution were adopted.

[…]

The voters who overwhelmingly embraced this exclusion rationalized it not as blind hate, but as a progressive move that was simply keeping their new land “pure.” Utopia often means starting from scratch, and just as often it means excluding undesirables.

Since 1987, the police department has shot at least a hundred and forty-six people. The shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri, looked almost routine to people in Albuquerque. They had seen such incidents many times before. Few people protested, and no one paid much attention. Police violence appeared to be a matter of concern only to Albuquerque’s underclass: those who are mentally ill, addicted to drugs, Native American, or Hispanic and poor. David Correia, a professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico, told me, “There’s this myth here of tri-cultural harmony—indigenous people, Mexican-Americans, and Anglos—but this precarious arrangement is built on a long history of violence against Spanish-speaking and indigenous people that still plays out.”

The city has hired a succession of experts, a new research team every few years, to analyze the police department’s use of force, but officials seem to have viewed the act of commissioning a report as a proxy for doing something about the problem. Samuel Walker, an expert in police accountability who was hired in 1996 to co-author one of the reports, after the police killed thirty-two people in ten years, said, “When we gave an oral presentation to the city council, I had a very strong impression that many city-council members were not interested.” He described his conversation with Martin Chávez, the mayor, as one of the most hostile interviews he’s ever conducted. He said that the police chief would not look him in the eyes when he briefed him. One city-council member refused to meet with him or return his calls.

Ongwen’s Indictment and Lukodi

The ICC has released the un-redacted version of Dominic Ongwen’s indictment [pdf] for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It appears that the incident at the center of his indictment was the Lukodi Massacre in 2004.

Members of civil society from the DRC and CAR say a prayer alongside people from Lukodi at the memorial for the massacre. June, 2013.

Members of civil society from the DRC and CAR say a prayer alongside people from Lukodi at the memorial for the massacre. June, 2013.

As Ledio Cakaj tweeted yesterday, this will bring attention to the tragic situation of IDP camps in the history of the war – Lukodi was but one of many “protected” camps that the military forced civilians into, then provided little to no protection. Some have even called the camp policy one of genocide. (If you want to read up on this, Chris Dolan’s Social Torture is a thorough analysis of the camps, and Adam Branch has written on the humanitarian complicity [pdf] in the program).

The Justice and Reconciliation Project published a report on the Lukodi Massacre in 2011 which you can access here [pdf]. The trial of Dominic Ongwen will raise a lot of interesting issues, not least because of his unique status as both victim and perpetrator of child conscription. The JRP report also doesn’t name Ongwen as the commander in the attack. I’m not familiar enough with this incident, but it is yet another question that will come up as to Ongwen’s responsibility for the massacre.

Here are a few photos from when I was in Lukodi in 2013. While I was researching radio interventions in northern Uganda, I observed a conference of Congolese and Central African civil society members who were hosted by Invisible Children in Gulu. One day, everyone took a bus to Lukodi where they met members of the community in Lukodi and heard testimonies of what had happened there. A victim of LRA violence from CAR also spoke to the audience about her experience. Later, a group of school children performed before the group headed back to Gulu.

Members of the conference gather to hear people from Lukodi speak.

Members of the conference gather to hear people from Lukodi speak.

Survivors, many widowed, were recognized by the audience.

Survivors were recognized by the audience.

Speaker telling her story to the audience.

Speaker telling her story to the audience.

DSCN8117

Students performed dances to Christian songs.

Weekend Reading

On Sunday March 7, 1965, six hundred people, led by John Lewis, marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Just after crossing the bridge, they were met by Alabama State Troopers and local police. The men in uniform wore masks, and some of them were on horseback. They gave a brief warning, and then shot teargas and charged into the crowd with billy clubs. They rolled through undefended people with a sickening carelessness for human safety that the corresponding scene in Selma—Ava DuVernay’s necessary and otherwise fine film—failed to match. That’s the point, perhaps: that what we watch from the safety of a movie theater cannot, and should not, relay to us the true horror of things. For how would we bear it?

But watch the original footage. These Americans brutally beat unarmed women and men, thorough in their mercilessness, cheered on by other Americans, sending more than fifty Americans to hospital. The footage made the difference, and shocked the nation’s conscience. It accelerated the passage of the Voting Rights Act.

How not to link it all together? Selma and Ferguson, New York City and Cleveland, torture by the CIA and mass murder in Gaza, the police state and slave patrols: no generation is free of the demands of conscience, and no citizenry can shirk the responsibility of calling the state’s abuse of power to account.

This localist agenda is part of Mayor Spencer’s ambitious program to create a fairer and more sustainable local economy whose businesses stay put and where money spends more time circulating locally among networked enterprises. His administration is promoting worker cooperatives, energy efficiency, public banking, a local “food shed” and urban agriculture, remunicipalization of jobs (like the Socialists before them), and creating new jobs by reclaiming the city’s waste. No other current city administration in the United States, to my knowledge, is embracing such a broad range of “solidarity economy” strategies (although Spencer himself doesn’t use that specific term) to promote the well-being of its residents. And few other city administrations also face such steep challenges.

Weekend Reading

Different year, different list of links:

Though it’s a national phenomenon, Mississippi currently leads the way in turning school behavior into a police issue. The Hospitality State has imposed felony charges on schoolchildren for “crimes” like throwing peanuts on a bus. Wearing the wrong color belt to school got one child handcuffed to a railing for several hours. All of this goes under the rubric of “zero-tolerance” discipline, which turns out to be just another form of violence legally imported into schools.

Despite a long-term drop in youth crime, the carceral style of education remains in style. Metal detectors—a horrible way for any child to start the day—are installed in ever more schools, even those with sterling disciplinary records, despite the demonstrable fact that such scanners provide no guarantee against shootings andstabbings.

Every school shooting, whether in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, or Littleton, Colorado, only leads to more police in schools and more arms as well. It’s the one thing the National Rifle Association and Democratic senators can agree on. There are plenty ofsuccessful ways to run an orderly school without criminalizing the classroom, but politicians and much of the media don’t seem to want to know about them. The “school-to-prison pipeline,” a jargon term coined by activists, is entering the vernacular.

It was a measure of how dire conditions were in the South that the Great Migration continued into the 1970s. When it began, 90 percent of all African-Americans were living in the South. By the time it ended, nearly half of all African-Americans lived elsewhere.

Notably, however, high profile-cases of police brutality have recently come to be associated with the North rather than the South. And it is in the South that two recent cases of police shootings of unarmed black people resulted in more vigorous prosecution. Last month, as protests raged over the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri, Eric Garner in New York and John Crawford and Tamir Rice in Ohio, Randall Kerrick, a police officer in Charlotte, N.C., made his first court appearance on a charge of voluntary manslaughter in the 2013 death of Jonathan Ferrell. Mr. Ferrell was an unarmed black motorist who was shot 10 times as he sought help after a car accident. In September, Sean Groubert, a South Carolina state trooper, was fired after shooting an unarmed man, Levar Jones, during a traffic stop over a seatbelt violation. In a widely circulated video of the incident, Mr. Jones asked the trooper with humbling composure, “What did I do, sir?” Then: “Why did you shoot me?” He survived his injuries. The trooper was arrested and charged with aggravated assault and battery, a felony that carries a possible 20-year prison term.

The nation still has far to go, but this, at least, seems cause for hope. It suggests that the South, after decades of wrestling with its history, is now willing to face injustice head on. And it suggests that the North, after decades of insisting that it was fairer and more free, could eventually do the same.

Readings on Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech, and Violence

In the days after the shooting at the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo‘s offices and the anti-Muslim violence that has followed (and anti-Muslim sentiment that preceded it), many people have had a lot of things to say. Despite being broadly against violence and in support of free speech, I’ve been uncomfortable with what a lot of people are saying and presses are printing. I’ve struggled to articulate it all, and so I’ll rely on the following.

In an early and succinct response to “#JeSuisCharle, Angus Johnston stated that:

An odious piece of writing doesn’t become not-odious because it offends someone odious. A pointlessly crappy cartoon remains a pointlessly crappy cartoon even if the cartoonist is targeted for murder.

It’s true (and important) that the murder of people who express stupid ideas stupidly is a threat to free expression more generally. Violence against bad speech can chill good speech, and even bad speech should not be greeted with lethal violence.

But the cure for violence against bad speech isn’t more bad speech.

Adam Shatz questions the “Je suis Charlie” line in a smart critique of George Packer and other liberals who have identified extremist ideology as the only culprit, explaining that:

We have been here before: the 11 September attacks led many liberal intellectuals to become laptop bombardiers, and to smear those, such as Susan Sontag, who reminded readers that American policies in the Middle East had not won us many friends. The slogan ‘je suis Charlie’ expresses a peculiar nostalgia for 11 September, for the moment before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, before Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition, before all the things that did so much to tarnish America’s image and to muddy the battle lines. In saying ‘je suis Charlie’, we can feel innocent again. Thanks to the massacre in Paris, we can forget the Senate torture report, and rally in defence of the West in good conscience.

Packer’s article isn’t surprising, but it’s also symptomatic. He reacted to 9/11 by supporting the invasion of Iraq. He later became a critic of the war, or at least of its execution. Yet he responded to the Paris massacre by resorting to the same rhetoric about Islamic ‘totalitarianism’ that he invoked after 9/11. He even hints at a civilisational war between Us and Them – or, at least, some of Them, the ‘substantial minority of believers who countenance… a degree of violence in the application of their convictions that is currently unique’. That such rhetoric helped countenance the disasters of Afghanistan and Iraq seems not to occur to him, bathed as he is in what liberal hawks like to call ‘moral clarity’. To demonstrate ‘moral clarity’ is to be on the right side, and to show the courage of a fighting faith, rather than the timorous, context-seeking analysis of those soft on what Christopher Hitchens called ‘Islamofascism’. Packer’s New Yorker article is a declaration of this faith, a faith he confuses with liberalism.

In laying exclusive blame for the Paris massacres on the ‘totalitarian’ ideology of radical Islam, liberal intellectuals like Packer explicitly disavow one of liberalism’s great strengths. Modern liberalism has always insisted that ideology can go only so far in explaining behaviour. Social causes matter. The Kouachi brothers were products of the West – and of the traumatic collision between Western power and an Islamic world that has been torn apart by both internal conflict and Western military intervention. They were, above all, beurs, French citizens from the banlieue: Parisians of North African descent.

Regarding how to feel about the attacks and the cartoons, Richard Seymour identified the main problem, stating that: “there’s a critical difference between solidarity with the journalists who were attacked, refusing to concede anything to the idea that journalists are somehow ‘legitimate targets,’ and solidarity with what is frankly a racist publication.”

The collapsing of these two ideas is what has made me so uncomfortable with the response to the attack.

And here’s Jacob Canfield on the role of satire and its targets:

[T]hese cartoons make it very clear who the white editorial staff was interested in provoking: France’s incredibly marginalized, often attacked, Muslim immigrant community.

[…]

White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good. Their satire was bad, and remains bad. Their satire was racist, and remains racist.

The conversation around these cartoons maintains the status quo, glorifying white men who put down vulnerable populations while also labeling all Muslims as extremists. The conversation about the attacks also does this. Some have stated that this is the worst terrorist attack in Europe since 2005, conveniently forgetting right-wing nationalist and Islamophobe Anders Breivik’s murder of 77 people, mostly children, in 2011.

And I’ll close with Teju Cole, speaking truths on which bodies are mourned and remembered and which ones are left and forgotten:

Rather than posit that the Paris attacks are the moment of crisis in free speech—as so many commentators have done—it is necessary to understand that free speech and other expressions of liberté are already in crisis in Western societies; the crisis was not precipitated by three deranged gunmen.

[…]

The killings in Paris were an appalling offense to human life and dignity. The enormity of these crimes will shock us all for a long time. But the suggestion that violence by self-proclaimed Jihadists is the only threat to liberty in Western societies ignores other, often more immediate and intimate, dangers. The U.S., the U.K., and France approach statecraft in different ways, but they are allies in a certain vision of the world, and one important thing they share is an expectation of proper respect for Western secular religion. Heresies against state power are monitored and punished. People have been arrested for making anti-military or anti-police comments on social media in the U.K. Mass surveillance has had a chilling effect on journalism and on the practice of the law in the U.S. Meanwhile, the armed forces and intelligence agencies in these countries demand, and generally receive, unwavering support from their citizens. When they commit torture or war crimes, no matter how illegal or depraved, there is little expectation of a full accounting or of the prosecution of the parties responsible.

The scale, intensity, and manner of the solidarity that we are seeing for the victims of the Paris killings, encouraging as it may be, indicates how easy it is in Western societies to focus on radical Islamism as the real, or the only, enemy. This focus is part of the consensus about mournable bodies, and it often keeps us from paying proper attention to other, ongoing, instances of horrific carnage around the world: abductions and killings in Mexico, hundreds of children (and more than a dozen journalists) killed in Gaza by Israel last year, internecine massacres in the Central African Republic, and so on. And even when we rightly condemn criminals who claim to act in the name of Islam, little of our grief is extended to the numerous Muslim victims of their attacks, whether in Yemen or Nigeria—in both of which there were deadly massacres this week—or in Saudi Arabia, where, among many violations of human rights, the punishment for journalists who “insult Islam” is flogging. We may not be able to attend to each outrage in every corner of the world, but we should at least pause to consider how it is that mainstream opinion so quickly decides that certain violent deaths are more meaningful, and more worthy of commemoration, than others.

Edit to add: Another thing I’ve seen making its way around the internet is Mahmood Mamdani’s speech given at the University of Johannesburg a few years ago, on the subject of depictions of Mohammed in European newspapers. Mamdani speaks about the line between blasphemy and bigotry, stating that both “belong to the larger tradition of free speech, but after a century of ethnic cleansing and genocide, we surely need to distinguish between the two strands of the same tradition. The language of contemporary politics makes that distinction by referring to bigotry as hate speech.”

He identifies the “dark side of free speech, its underbelly: how power can instrumentalize free speech to frame a minority and present it for target practice” before delving into what kinds of speech are identified as acceptable and which are not. He defines them thus:

Blasphemy is the practice of questioning a tradition from within. In contrast, bigotry is an assault on that tradition from the outside. If blasphemy is an attempt to speak truth to power, bigotry is the reverse: an attempt by power to instrumentalize truth. A defining feature of the cartoon debate is that bigotry is being mistaken for blasphemy.

This distinction, I think, can be helpful in identifying the problem with these instances of “free expression” – and further explains why we shouldn’t be amplifying offensive speech in the name of defending free speech.

The Complexities of Dominic Ongwen’s Reported Surrender

News broke on Tuesday that ICC-indicted LRA commander Dominic Ongwen had surrendered to U.S. forces in Central African Republic. The human rights and LRA crowd was all atwitter (literally), and it has now been confirmed that Ongwen surrendered (or maybe was captured) by Seleka forces near Kafia Kingi, who handed him over to U.S. forces in Obo. Ongwen is to be handed over to Uganda, and his ultimate fate remains uncertain.

Ongwen’s case is a complex one. He was abducted and conscripted into the LRA at the age of 10, but quickly rose through the LRA ranks to become the leader of the Sinia brigade. For his involvement in attacks on IDP camps and the killing and abducting of civilians, Ongwen was charged by the ICC with three counts of crimes against humanity and four counts of war crimes in 2005. He has since continued to be active in the LRA, although his position in the army’s leadership has been in flux. He has been sidelined by Kony, but remains influential in the rebel group to some degree.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ongwen, the essential reading list includes Erin Baines’ article on Ongwen and his position as a “complex political perpetrator” [gated] and a report [pdf] she wrote for the Justice and Reconciliation Project that discusses similar issues. Ledio Cakaj also wrote a brief but thorough bio on Ongwen for the LRA Crisis Tracker.

In addition, Mark Kersten recently penned some reflections on what Ongwen’s surrender/capture means, and why it isn’t a clear-cut victory for international justice. Importantly, he notes the “it’s complicated” relationship status between Uganda and the ICC, and the tenuous status of Uganda’s domestic court for international crimes – two important aspects of the ICC’s involvement in the LRA conflict.

Dominic Ongwen’s story isn’t over, and it will be interesting to see how it unfolds as he is transferred to Uganda and navigates a complex path between the domestic justice, amnesty, and international justice systems, not to mention the politics of all three.

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This past fall, I presented a paper at the African Studies Association on Invisible Children and the role of reconciliation. While most of the paper deals with Invisible Children’s programs in central Africa, part of it discusses narratives of reconciliation and accountability – especially in regards to the ICC. I compare Ongwen’s status and the narrative surrounding him to that of Caesar Acellam, the LRA commander taken into custody in 2012 whom I wrote about here. Acellam’s story is similar to Ongwen’s, but the reception to this capture/surrender were different than the media’s and human rights community’s treatment was markedly different. While not directly about recent events, here are the relevant paragraphs discussing Ongwen:

LRA commander Dominic Ongwen was placed on the wanted list of the ICC and was recently the target (along with Joseph Kony and Okot Odihambo) of radio messages offering rewards for information leading to his capture. The U.S. government had expanded its Justice for Rewards bounty program to include LRA commanders indicted by the ICC a year before (see Ross 2013), with strong support and grassroots mobilization from Invisible Children.  Ongwen has not been the target of this attention because of his role in the organization today – he has recently been demoted, arrested, and threatened on Kony’s orders on numerous occasions (Lancaster and Cakaj 2013). Like Acellam, Ongwen was abducted in his youth, and subsequently rose in the rebel ranks to become a commander. Unlike Acellam and other LRA commanders who enjoy impunity or have received amnesty, however, Ongwen is painted as responsible for his actions. Ongwen remains “the first known person to be charged with the same war crimes of which he is also victim” (Baines 2008, 1). Some Invisible Children staff members I spoke to argued that Acellam was a victim of the LRA despite his position, while Ongwen had grown into LRA leadership and should therefore be held to account. But the reason Ongwen’s name is said on Congolese radio waves is arguably not based on his role in the LRA now, but because of his role in the organization in the early 2000s, and because of the timing of the ICC’s intervention.

Acellam and Ongwen were conscripted into LRA ranks decades ago, “a temporal span over which a young person so labeled [as child soldier] at one time moves to different stages of moral reasoning, responsibility, and culpability” (Ferme 2014, 58). Both fit the category of “complex political perpetrators” (Baines 2009), those who came of age within LRA ranks and became perpetrators in an attempt to reclaim agency over their lives, but who nonetheless remain victims, and whose complex status is excluded from the criminal justice discourse that the ICC and its supporters put forth (Baines 2009). Both Acellam and Ongwen fit these descriptions, yet the former has evaded the responsibility and culpability that could have come with commanding a rebel group as an adult while the latter has been less fortunate, due primarily to his having been indicted by the ICC. Despite the ICC’s role in the LRA conflict having diminished over the years since the end of the Juba peace talks, the Court remains a potent force for the three remaining indicted individuals – and for Invisible Children. By channeling Invisible Children’s media and narrative, the ICC has calcified the identities of the LRA leadership based on dated investigations and dictated the narrative of Invisible Children’s justice-for-some, forgiveness-for-others narrative.

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