Reconciliation 2012: A Local Response to Joseph Kony and the International Community

The internet video Kony 2012 has garnered more than 100 million hits and has motivated viewers to support the arrest and trial of one of the world's most monstrous war criminals, Uganda's Joseph Kony. For this, the video's creator, Invisible Children, merits acclaim.

What Kony 2012 misses, though, are the voices of ordinary Ugandans who have responded quite differently to the 25-year long war fought between Kony's Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government. Guided by their Christian faith and their tribal traditions, they have practiced reconciliation and forgiveness.

The protagonist of Kony 2012 -- who reappears in a recently released sequel -- is Luis Moreno Ocampo, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Judicial prosecution, the response to armed atrocities that Ocampo embodies, dominates the thinking of the international community of U.N. officials, human rights activists and international lawyers. It is also Kony 2012's bottom line: Kony must be captured and convicted.

Indeed he must. The LRA has abducted more than 30,000 children, displaced some 2 million people from their homes, and waged a war that has taken more than 100,000 lives by some estimates. Today, Kony continues his campaign of murder and intimidation in the nearby nations of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan -- both of which already face daunting challenges without the destabilizing presence of the LRA.

But judicial prosecution is not enough. The wounds of war extend far wider than the impunity of perpetrators. In Uganda, building peace has required the return of hundreds of thousands of displaced persons and tens of thousands of child soldiers to their homes -- and reckoning with the complex crimes that uprooted them.

Here enters reconciliation, an alternative to the globally dominant paradigm of judicial prosecution. Reconciliation has been the rallying cry of the Acholi Religious Leaders Peace Initiative (ARLPI), a coalition of Catholic, Anglican and Muslim leaders who promoted the most important plank of Uganda's peace process -- the Amnesty Act of 2000, which allows amnesty for any fighter who leaves the LRA and renounces violent struggle. Though human rights lawyers decry amnesty, the ARLPI insists that reintegrating soldiers and displaced people into their villages takes priority over punishment.

By reconciliation, though, the religious leaders mean far more than amnesty. Rooted in the Christian faith, which the vast majority of Ugandans share, reconciliation denotes a holistic restoration of relationship and involves a host of interconnected practices: reparations, apology, a full accounting of past injustices, telling of the truth about the past, community rituals and forgiveness. Northern Ugandan tribal traditions similarly entail multifaceted rituals of reconciliation.

Turning to this faith and these traditions, thousands of Ugandans have responded to the religious leaders' call. Forgiveness in the wake of war does not come easily and is often preceded by a painful airing of grievances, a halting road to repentance on the part of perpetrators, and the simple passage of time. Still, it does take place.

Consider Angelina Atyam, whose daughter, along with 138 other girls, was abducted from a Catholic boarding school by the Lord's Resistance Army in October 1996. Atyam and several of the other parents gathered regularly at the local cathedral to pray, support one another and organize advocacy for their daughters' release. One day they were praying the Lord's Prayer, "forgive us our trespasses as we..." and could not go on. Confronting her bitterness, Atyam came to believe that she was called by God to forgive and then did so, even seeking out the mother of the rebel commander who held her daughter and forgiving her son, her clan and her tribe. For her efforts, Atyam was awarded a Peace Prize by the United Nations in 1998.

When Kony became worried about the adverse publicity the parents' advocacy was bringing him, he approached Atyam and offered to release her daughter if she would cease speaking out. Atyam refused: she would desist only if Kony released all of the girls. Finally, almost eight years after Atyam's daughter was abducted, she escaped from the LRA and reunited with her mother.

Practiced widely by Northern Ugandans, reconciliation and forgiveness have facilitated the massive reintegration of displaced people and abductees into their home villages that has taken place since early 2009, when the Ugandan government forced Kony and his army out of Uganda. In these villages perpetrators and victims have little choice but to live together again -- a nearly impossible feat without an overcoming of enmity. All of this has taken place even while Kony remained at large.

So yes, let us capture Kony. But may we, the international community, and indeed the 100 million viewers of Kony 2012, also voice our collective support for ordinary Ugandans like Angelina Atyam who have found the faith to reconcile -- and allow them to inspire and teach us in return.

Daniel Philpott is a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame, where he is on the faculty of the Kroc Institute of International Peace Studies, and an adviser to the Fetzer Institute. He is author of the forthcoming 'Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation' (Oxford, 2012).

See this powerful video -- Uganda: The Challenge of Forgiveness