For decades, he's oppressed tens of thousands of people in three African nations, forcing young girls into sexual slavery and training young boys to shoot each other. The United States has labeled him a terrorist. The International Criminal Court for War has named him its No. 1 priority. But among the American public, Joseph Kony's name is relatively unknown.
A campaign to raise support for the African warlord's arrest has gone viral on the Internet. By Wednesday afternoon, more than 8.7 million people had viewed a 30-minute video about Kony made by the nonprofit group Invisible Children. A number of celebrities, including singer Rihanna and actress Zooey Deschanel, promoted the campaign online. On Twitter, the hashtag #StopKony was one of the top 10 most used words Wednesday.
In the video, Invisible Children CEO Jason Russell introduces viewers to his son Gavin, a blue-eye blonde who loves jumping on the trampoline, being a ninja and dancing.
"He didn't choose when or where he was born," Russell says in the video. "But because he's here, he matters."
Russell goes on to tell the story of another little boy in Uganda who grew up afraid he would be abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army, which Kony leads. Under Kony, the World Bank estimates more than 66,000 African children have been kidnapped, forced to become soldiers and even ordered to kill their own parents.
The LRA was formed in 1988 because of the frustrations of Uganda's marginalized Acholi ethnic group. Now, though, the political agenda has been all but dropped and the army, under Kony's direction, focuses on killing civilians and sowing terror.
After learning about the LRA, Russell and two friends made a documentary film about the conflict and, in 2006, founded the nonprofit Invisible Children. The organization's advocacy work was influential in President Barack Obama's decision to deploy 100 military-combat-equipped troops to Uganda in October to advise regional military units in the search for Kony. The organization helped pass a law in 2009 that supports stabilization and peace in areas affected by the LRA.
Russell hopes the campaign, called "Kony 2012," will create a groundswell movement for justice. In the video, he encourages viewers to sign a petition and contribute to the cause by buying T-shirts, posters and bracelets. On April 20, supporters will plaster their hometowns with posters. "If we succeed, we change the course of human history," Russell said in the video.
The campaign is not without its critics.
Encouraging the United States to ally with the Ugandan military may not be the best plan, Maria Burnett, senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian.
"We have documented numerous cases in which they've been involved in torture and arbitrary arrests, as well as a score of killings of unarmed protesters and bystanders during political demonstrations in the past three years," she said.
Yale Political Science professor Chris Blattman called the nonprofit's efforts to mobilize the public against Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army "misleading, naive, maybe even dangerous."
In an article published in Foreign Affairs in November, three U.K. professors accused Invisible Children, and other organizations like it, of both over simplifying the conflict and taking too much artistic liberty.
"In their campaigns, such organizations have manipulated facts for strategic purposes, exaggerating the scale of LRA abductions and murders, and emphasizing the LRA's use of innocent children as soldiers, and portraying Kony — a brutal man, to be sure — as uniquely awful, a Kurtz-like embodiment of evil," wrote professors Koen Vlassenroot of the University of Ghent and Mareike Schomerus and Tim Allenof the London School of Economics. "They rarely refer to the Ugandan atrocities or those of Sudan's People's Liberation Army, such as attacks against civilians or looting of civilian homes and business, or the complicated regional politics fueling the conflict."
Invisible Children has also come under scrutiny for how it spends donations. Charity Navigator, America's leading independent nonprofit evaluator, gave Invisible Children three stars out of four overall, but just two stars for accountability and transparency. Less than 40 percent of donations are spent on direct services, according to the organization's financial statements. The nonprofit's three founders collectively make $262,000 a year.1 comment on this story
Jedediah Jenkins, director of idea development for Invisible Children, told the Washington Post the criticisms were "myopic." He said the organization received a low rating on Charity Navigator simply because they have too few board members.
He believes "Kony 2012" is already accomplishing good things.
"The film has reached a place in the global consciousness where people know who Kony is, they know his crimes," he said. "Kids know and they respond. And then they won't allow it to happen anymore."