Juba Peace Talks in Uganda & the Story of Joseph Kony

In this podcast episode, BSC Director Salimah Samji interviews Rob Wilkinson, Lecturer in Public Policy and Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. They discuss a recent case study written by Anjani Datla, Senior Case Writer at HKS, and Rob Wilkinson on the Juba Peace Talks in Uganda and the story of Joseph Kony.

*Please note, this episode contains depictions of violence that listeners may find alarming or disturbing. See the podcast transcript for more details.*

Resources for further study:

Read the HKS Case Study on the Juba Peace Talks.

Read Bargaining with the Devil by Robert Harris Mnookin. 

Read Timing and Ripeness by I. William Zartman. 

Read Theories and Indicators of Change: Concepts and primers for conflict management and mitigation paper. 

Watch relevant videos on the conflict in Uganda, led by Joseph Kony's  Lord's Resistance Army (LRA): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DjSh60q0RYA https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-wQ7OXs8LIhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zX1TpN8pml4.


Katya Gonzalez-Willette: [00:00:04] Hello and welcome to Building State Capability at Harvard University's podcast series. 

Katya Gonzalez-Willette: [00:00:11] In this podcast episode, BSC Director Salimah Samji interviews Rob Wilkinson, lecturer in public policy and leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School. They discuss a recent case study written by Anjani Datla, who's a senior writer at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Rob Wilkinson. The case study reviews the Juba Peace Talks in Uganda and the story of Joseph Kony. 

Katya Gonzalez-Willette: [00:00:33] Before we begin this podcast, please note that this episode contains depictions of violence that some people may find disturbing or alarming. 

Salimah Samji: [00:00:42] Welcome, Rob, to our BSC podcast series. In today's podcast, we're going to discuss the case that you've written. But I was wondering, Rob, if you would first begin by just telling us what is the case program and why do you use cases to teach? 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:01:00] Thank you very much for having me. It's great to be here with you again. And yeah, Harvard University, I think, is known for having created the case study method. And the idea is that while students are busy learning lots of important concepts in different disciplines, it really only kind of comes to life when you bring it all together looking at a real-world case. So sometimes there are case studies on individuals, on broad situations, on policy challenges. The thing that we really focus on with the case study method is that it's not to say here is the solution and the way you should do it and just do it like this protagonist did it in the case, it's really meant to provoke a series of questions and dilemmas and tensions that we want students to explore, all in service of the fact that once they graduate, they're going to actually be in situations where they have to make some of these very decisions. And having thought through the tensions between the different concepts they're learning in an example like this, one can be really a beneficial way to provoke all that kind of reflection, which can be frustrating because people want an answer. They want to know this is how you do it, whereas in reality, it's about giving a vehicle to help think through ambiguity and push people to think, how would you behave and what decision would you make in the absence of all the perfect information like this case study example here? So that's the idea: get people to ask themselves more questions than they did beforehand and reflect on tensions in a way that they wouldn't have otherwise. 

Salimah Samji: [00:02:20] Great. Thank you. It's really striking how students are always looking for the answer. I think we're kind of hardwired to think that there is an answer for everything and the whole idea of ambiguity is a hard one to deal with. So I think it is really great to get them used to the ambiguity of some of these complex problems. So today we're going to discuss the case that has the story of Joseph Kony and the Juba peace talks between Kony and the Ugandan government. Why did you choose this particular case to discuss today? 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:02:56] We have had this question come up with lots of students in general, which is about the fact that normally we tend to use success stories to write case studies, which makes sense. You know, people who started a big organization or maybe reformed a major law or brought peace to a region in the world or something like that, it's pretty remarkable to read these stories. One of the things we also think can be really helpful, though, is to look at examples where it did not go well. And in this case, it was not a successful negotiation. The Juba peace talks fell apart and didn't get resolved. And there's a lot we can learn from that. We can learn from how it was designed, the actions people took in the middle of the negotiation, the structural elements, the external pressure, all sorts of facets that made this not a success story. And we thought, you know, we should include more of those in our repertoire. So that was another reason why I thought this would be a great case to look at. And maybe finally, it's just so relevant to all the things that we're looking at today. I mean, the tensions that are going on in this case really are so broadly applicable that it seems like a very relevant discussion to be having right now. 

Salimah Samji: [00:03:57] Learning from failure, I think that's really true. There is just something - we should do a lot more of learning from what didn't work and why to see if we can improve what we do in the future. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:04:08] No kidding. 

Salimah Samji: [00:04:09] So, Rob, I was wondering if you can share with our audience just some details of this story. Who is Joseph Kony and what is the story about? 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:04:19] This is a situation which was a terribly tragic, violent conflict happening in Uganda, in Central Africa. And the president of Uganda, who is still the President, Museveni, had the minister of interior, Rugunda, who he appointed as the lead negotiator to try to find a way to negotiate with the rebel group that was causing so much violence in the north of the country. And this rebel group was called the Lord's Resistance Army, which was founded and led by Joseph Kony. And this was an example of violence that was really horrific on any level you look at it, I mean, absolutely horrific acts of mutilation and torture and forced child soldiers, sex slaves, really, you can't imagine just how bad it was. And this is actually a part of the world that I've worked in quite a bit. I spent three years living in Central Africa, and then I worked for about four years after that, going back and forth, including the very north of Uganda, which is pretty remote. And the poverty there is absolutely stunning. So this is in the context of deep poverty, where you have compounding on that, human rights violations and an ongoing civil war situation. So this was a dire situation that had to be dealt with. And the Ugandan government made the decision, as hard as it was for them, to reach out and try to arrange negotiations and talks with the LRA to try and bring the conflict to an end. And so the case study, if you want the more detailed storyline of exactly how it unfolded, from the period of about 2006 to 2008, the case gives you all the details and the twists and turns. The essence of the story for our conversation today is how do you grapple with the fact that there's someone who's committing atrocities that are clearly on the level of international war crimes with a country that's suffering with poverty, and you want to bring justice, but you also want to bring peace. And you're looking at the international community and where you can get resources to help you in this. What do you do in that incredibly difficult context? Those are the sets of tensions that we really want to explore.

Salimah Samji: [00:06:13] So building on that, there is clear human rights violations here. There's a need for justice to be done. You know, 30,000 children have been kidnaped by this person and this idea of peace in your country and conflict resolution, that tension. How do you deal with that tension? 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:06:32] There's so many aspects to this. It gets obviously very complicated very quickly. And one thing that people do in this situation is look to other examples in history where there have been civil wars and the war has been resolved and ended. There's examples like El Salvador or Sierra Leone or Mozambique. And there's different approaches that were taken, different elements of like pressure versus appeasement and discussions versus military action. So they try to look at a range of different example. When I worked in Burundi, for example, after the civil war ended, we brought in people from South Africa to talk about how they made the transition after Apartheid, for example. So learning from others is always a really big part of how to engage in a situation like this. And the first step is this tension that you've touched on, which is: Do you even sit down with somebody who you pretty much have associated with as evil, can you sit down and negotiate with evil? That's a very hard question to think through. There's a wonderful book I would recommend for people thinking about this called Bargaining with the Devil by Bob Mnookin, who was the former head of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard. And in this book, he talks about the idea that when you say how do you deal with a situation, there's a debate about it. One school of thought is that you can always sit down with anyone and at least listen and negotiate. You know, there's no harm in even trying. And there's other people who say, well, the very act of agreeing to sit down with someone who's committed atrocities itself is a betrayal for what you stand for. And it's not justifiable. And so what Bob Mnookin writes about is saying, like, we shouldn't say always at any time with no conditions, sit down and talk with anyone about anything. And on the other hand, though, we shouldn't say just because they're so horrible, we should never sit down with them. We have to make a judgment. And he goes through a series of examples in his book about here's where like, for example, Nelson Mandela sitting down with F.W. de Klerk. He would say, you know, that was to serve a broader goal, which made sense. He has a different example of somebody named Sharansky, who was a dissident in the former USSR who never sat down and talked with the government. And he argues that that made strategic sense in that context. So it's a judgment call. In this case, it's interesting to think that they did decide to sit down with Kony actually, and they met with him in 2007 in this airfield in the north of the country. Landing by helicopter, they did actually meet face to face. But it was a big strategic question about whether we should even do it in the first place or not. We had a chance to sit down with the Prime Minister, who's now the Prime Minister of Uganda. Rugunda was the interior minister. He came and told us a little bit about their thinking, about deciding to sit down and actually speak with the LRA. So maybe I'll just play a little clip of the interview we had with Prime Minister Rugunda. 

Prime Minister Rugunda: [00:09:07] Initially, government was opposed talking to Kony, they took a lot of debate, it was not inform our position in the country, but because of the new political environment in South Sudan, government reviewed its position and said, let's give them a chance. Let's talk. You never know, talks may win. To us, peace for the country took first position, other issues, important as they were, took secondary position. So we went for the talks with a lot of readiness to talk seriously and to strike a deal if it was possible. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:09:56] OK, so there's a couple of things I find really interesting about what he said there. So the first is, you know, they had to really have a serious discussion about whether it was worth it or not to sit down and talk with him. And they made the decision to sit with him. And what's fascinating is actually the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was involved in helping to support some of these peace talks, which is a humanitarian assistance agency. Right. And millions was given to them to help broker these talks. So what strikes me is that they have this country dealing with economic development issues, like I said. And he says peace takes first position, which is the justification for having talks, because ultimately that will help the people of the country. But notice he didn't talk about retribution or justice or punishment. So there's three big buckets there of stuff to think about: economic development, justice and retribution, and then peace and conflict resolution. 

Salimah Samji: [00:10:46] And he also mentioned how the situation in Sudan had changed and that helped change the mind of the Ugandan government. Right. So there was also this geopolitical situation that they found themselves in that also led to some of this change. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:11:04] Absolutely. There's one scholar named William Zartman who's written a lot about this, and he has a term he uses 'ripeness'. When it comes to conflict resolution, it's not just getting all your ducks in order and doing the analysis and getting the people that you need on board. It's careful attention to political shifting sands and timing and therefore what he calls 'ripeness' - when the moment is ripe. And so ripeness has played a role for sure here. And, you know, I think it's the fact that so much humanitarian assistance was going to this region shows how desperate the need was, which shows why it was so important to sit down and talk with people who you disagree with, who maybe have even committed atrocities that you find unconscionable. And the head of OCHA at the time was a man named Jan Egeland, a Norwegian diplomat. And he actually had a saying, which was, "If you want to help people living in hell, sometimes you have to shake hands with the devil." And that was his attitude going into Uganda. And he actually met with, I understand, with Kony as well. So that's a huge dilemma. It's a really tough one to kind of there's no right or wrong answer. We can't say always sit down with someone, or never. But it takes a lot of thought before you even started the negotiation, some people think, well, when do we actually get started with the negotiation? I would say you're in it now. This is part of the negotiation is thinking all this through before you even sit down with them. So that was a really striking insight to me that they had to make that decision. And then secondly, they had to prioritize between rights and conflict resolution and economic development, and they chose peace. It's fascinating. 

Salimah Samji: [00:12:25] It is, and that's a tough decision to make, and even if you choose peace, how do you ensure that everyone on your side is serious about this or they really mean it? 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:12:35] That was a huge question mark here, and I think even reading the case you'll see, and some people would say that there were those in the Ugandan government that felt like they had to show that they were doing this to exhaust all options before they could go to what they thought would be a military sort of solution. And then there were those who were serious. And so managing your internal factions and different coalitions is as much a challenge, sometimes even more so than the other side. In fact, Shimon Peres said in the Middle East that most people think you're negotiating with the other side, but you're really mostly negotiating with your own side. And that was happening here for sure. And then, of course, the other side of it is that there were those who were not in agreement with peace at all costs. You know, if the guns get laid down and we can get back to economic development, but nobody suffers any consequences, they couldn't quite live with that either. So that was another tension here, which was the human rights justice lens versus conflict resolution peace lens. The International Criminal Court had just been established and they issued the very first warrant actually was for Joseph Kony. And it was issued by the chief prosecutor who happens to be here at the Kennedy School, Prosecutor Ocampo. And he was very much on the other side of the argument saying, you know, how is that peace? If you have people get away with literally these outrageous crimes, you can't call that a real peace. 

Salimah Samji: [00:13:57] Where is the accountability? Right. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:14:00] Exactly. In fact, we interviewed him for this teaching package as well. And so he has some interviews, if you go online and get the package. Maybe I'll just share a little audio clip of him talking about this issue as well, because he has very clear views on changing the perspective of the negotiations to not be one of like equality on both sides, but justice for the victims of Joseph Kony. And he saw his job as changing that narrative. 

Luis Manuel Ocampo: [00:14:26] They never talked justice before. In the report of Human Rights Watch 2003, there was no mention of justice for Joseph Kony. So suddenly we transformed the narrative. Was no more about peace agreement between parties, no, justice had to be done. Imagine a peace agreement with Kony receiving land to control. All his army with children abducted, all his wife would get raped. Is that peace? Is that peace? 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:14:55] So powerful to imagine that side of the argument saying, you know, you're talking about these discussions as if there are two parties of equals and they're not equals. Ocampo is saying you have a war criminal here who's done all these terrible things. How could you not be talking about justice in relation to Joseph Kony as opposed to a negotiated settlement - sounds so almost like a technocratic solution to something that is a human tragedy. And we need to punish somebody for that. And we know who the perpetrator is even. And so how could you not seriously be talking about this? But then, of course, people on the ground are saying, well, you may be by that warrant, it might be threatening the very peace process that will lead to the end of hostilities and violence. And if you're living in the middle of that violence, that's pretty important. That maybe is outweighing your desire and thirst for retribution. 

Salimah Samji: [00:15:44] Right. And if I have a warrant out on me. Why should I engage in peace talks when I already know I'm wanted? Right. I mean, it defeats the entire purpose. Like, what's my incentive to even cooperate when to begin with I don't trust you. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:15:57] Exactly. That's exactly right. So it directly affects the dynamics of the peace talks. I think this is fascinating because here at the Kennedy School, we have a whole center on international development and economic development. We have a center on human rights. We have a lot of us working on negotiation and conflict resolution. And you see in this case here how all three of those collide in a way that makes it really tough to navigate. This is what we mean when we say that when you get into the real world after studying these things, you have to make these tradeoffs that are really unpleasant and murky and not very clear. And you're in the middle of it and you have to decide. So here I just want to make sure we understand the ends of the spectra here, the sort of extremes of the spectra - on one end, persecution and justice is not cost free to what happens on the other end of the spectrum in terms of reconciliation, long term stability for peace. Those things can be kind of at odds with each other and there's ways to grapple with it and manage it. But we can't duck the reality that they're both very real ends of the spectrum here. 

Salimah Samji: [00:16:52] Yeah, I wanted to circle back to something else that you said about the ICC. The role of the international versus the local. You know, can the international be helpful? Can it not? And even with the ICC putting out its warrant on Kony, they didn't seem to even acknowledge that the Ugandan military themselves might have committed these atrocities themselves, right? It's not... Yes, they were not... obviously, they are not the same, but it's not like they didn't do things themselves. It's not just... this is such a complex situation. There is no one person who did all the evil and the other side was all good. Right. There's a lot of gray in that space. And I was wondering if you could speak to that. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:17:32] You're so right. When we start talking about, well, this is clearly the kind of guilty party in this terrible situation. It's usually more complicated than that. In other words, you can find guilt there, but there's probably a lot of other blame to go around as well. And even then, one of the concepts in conflict resolution that a scholar I know talks about is punctuation. And what they mean by that is what point in time are you focusing? And the reason that matters is when you say, well, wait, who's... usually people on some level, people are like, who started it, basically? And the answer to that question is often, well, how far back should we go? What unit of analysis are we going to take to answer that question? And that can then all of a sudden encompass a lot of different groups who also done things who don't. You know, most people are quite happy to cheer on the International Criminal Court if they are going after your enemy. But you're not so excited if they start to rope you in as well. Right. So you're absolutely on to something big there. So that's one thing that's not even clear how helpful or not the international community was on that front. Then there's another really fascinating tension about this, which is briefly mentioned in the case, which is the Kony 2012 video, the first viral video actually in history that totally internationalized this conflict. And there's definitely people on both sides who say it was helpful and very much not helpful. It's kind of hard to imagine these days how big of a deal it was to have a video... like today viral videos are very obviously commonplace. But I remember when that came out, that was a big deal. And it was this term was created called slacktivism. You know, people were like, you know, just clicking on likes and things was like, oh, I'm engaged now. But it would change the way that we thought about things. And a lot of people, I think now don't appreciate what an influence that had. In fact, I'll play even a little clip of some coverage at the time in 2012 of this video, which was kind of a surprise to a lot of people. 

ABC News Reporter: [00:19:19] Until this week, few Americans had heard of Joseph Kony or the atrocities he is said to have committed in Central Africa. But watch what happened when a charity posted a video on the Internet to raise awareness about Kony and his alleged crimes. On Monday, the video had been viewed 66,000 times. The next day, 9,600,000 views, and today 50 million and counting. In less than a week, it's become the most viral video ever. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:19:54] So that's kind of hard to imagine back in those days with the technology and the networks that we had, just how influential that was. All of a sudden everybody was talking about Joseph Kony, who was before that video, pretty much not that known around the world as a sort of leading figure. And the question is, is that helpful or hurtful to a peace process? You know, and lots of celebrities were involved. That video is about half an hour Kony 2012, and had lots of celebrities in it. That was very detailed about these are the 12. I think they had 12 policymakers who the most influential. John Kerry was there and Clinton was there. And they helped create a letter writing campaign to target those people. And they actually sent out kits where you had like buttons and necklaces. And it was a really big production to get people on board to pressure the international community to try to reign in and neutralize the LRA and Joseph Kony. But when we talk about the tensions we were just discussing between rights and peace, that actually ends up affecting that calculation in a way that I don't think that they planned on and it had maybe unintended consequences. So it's not agreed that that was a great thing for the peace process, although it was very good for awareness raising of the problems in Central Africa related to that kind of violence. 

Salimah Samji: [00:21:07] There's a fine line between creating awareness and making someone a celebrity. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:21:11] It's funny that you use that word. That was very much the goal of the organizers. So because you mentioned that, I'm going to share with you a bit of an interview here actually with George Clooney. And George Clooney worked a lot in the region, not just Uganda and the area of the northern Uganda, but in Sudan and in Congo. And so he was very much aware of what was going on and made his case for why something like this would be really valuable. So let's hear a few seconds of him talking about this. 

George Clooney: [00:21:38] Well, you know, that was taken from my comments when we started the Satellite Sentinel Project about Omar al-Bashir because he complained that... he said... Bashir, who's the head of the government in Khartoum, said that how would Mr. Clooney like it if cameras were constantly following him everywhere he goes? And we said, well, you know, welcome to my world. And I think it should be fair enough that he should enjoy the same amount of celebrity as I do - a war criminal. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:22:08] So that was his logic was just like, let's put the spotlight and the cameras on these, you know, evildoers, and then it'll be a lot harder for them to weasel out of the situations they're in because they've been allowing themselves to do things without the sunlight, sort of like coming in as the best disinfectant, as they say, to try to like, eliminate their bad behavior. But maybe I will play one last audio clip of someone different now. This is a survivor of one of the attacks by Joseph Kony and the LRA. And she was very badly hurt, sadly, and it actually affected her face and her ability to speak clearly. But I still think it's important to hear, in her words, what she thinks of the idea of celebrity and Joseph Kony being kind of put on this global stage by virtue of that video Kony 2012. So let's just hear her. 

LRA Survivor: [00:22:56] It's not easy to be a survivor, but I'm glad I able to escape. Maybe the purpose is why I am sitting here and it's very painful to me to hear that Joseph Kony is right now in the United States, is a celebrity. And I asked myself, what is celebrity? The kids they were supposed to be a celebrity because they have been through a lot. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:23:20] So let me just make sure you could understand that she was saying that she was very glad to have escaped. She did manage to successfully escape the LRA yet she was angry to hear that now Joseph Kony has become this celebrity. The kids should be the celebrities because they're the ones who've suffered. They're the ones to be celebrities, not Joseph Kony. So right there, you see what a tension there. I mean, it's so unclear what the right thing to do is. But I think what we would argue for is being very thoughtful and very intentional about how to decide the extent to which you want to internationalize a conflict like this. Because it's like I said, this has consequences that are probably the exact opposite. Why do we want justice and why do we want retribution and incapacitation of these different criminals? Because we want victims to see that there's not impunity, that someone's paying a price for what was done. And if the victims now see, oh, you're actually elevating them to celebrity status, I think we're having actually the opposite impact and we intend to. So it's really a tough dilemma. 

Salimah Samji: [00:24:14] It is. Well, thank you very much for sharing this case study with us, Rob. I think it really helps one understand how challenging some of these situations are and how it's so important to think through the tensions that exist. You know, whether it's human rights, justice versus peace and conflict resolution, whether it's do you need an international force to intervene or can you do it locally? Or maybe you need a blend of the two or you're thinking through the pros and cons of that. Do you have social media do some sort of awareness raising or making a celebrity of things and behavior you want people to have? Is it these ideas of do you work with those who've committed and perpetrated these acts or are evil or do you work around them? I think these are really tough tensions that really need, as you say, some real careful thought and purpose. And I think if I'm correct, Joseph Kony is still out at large. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:25:15] That is correct. It's an interesting result, which is that it's kind of dissipated in the movement the LRA. And it wasn't really brought about by a military victory or, you know, successful negotiation process. But it's true. He's out there still. So it's a precarious place to be. But we will put on the podcast lots of links for those who want to learn more about it and maybe watch some documentaries, of course, a link to the case itself. So there's lots of interesting, fascinating material out there. And I just I'm grateful for people taking the time to try and think these difficult issues through because they're relevant now more than ever and will be for a long time. So I appreciate the discussion. 

Salimah Samji: [00:25:49] Wonderful. Thank you so much, Rob. 

Rob Wilkinson: [00:25:51] Thank you very much. 

Katya Gonzalez-Willette: [00:25:54] To learn more about the Building State Capability program, visit www.bsc.cid.harvard.edu.