Wikileaks And Kony 2012: Does the U.S. Allow The Ugandan Government To Commit War Crimes?

In the piece from last week on the ‘incisive’ body of Kony 2012 coverage produced by herds of journalists in the days after the viral video was released, I cited several leaked diplomatic cables, published by Wikileaks, which provide some insight on the U.S. role in the hunt for Kony.

Unsurprisingly, the massive cache of leaks does provide valuable, direct insight on many matters related to the content of Kony 2012. So, as a follow-up to last week’s article, here’s a roundup of some more noteworthy information, gathered from a handful of the cables, on the hunt for Kony and on Invisible Children.

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Do we allow the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) – the Ugandan military – to commit war crimes while using U.S. intelligence or support in the hunt for Joseph Kony?

Of the batch examined, one secret cable from December 2009 is, perhaps, the most troubling. In it, the U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, Jerry Lanier, describes a meeting between the U.S. mission in Uganda and the Ugandan Minister of Defense, Crispus Kiyonga.

Here’s an excerpt, with emphasis added to key sentences:

The U.S. Mission received verbal assurances from the Ugandan Minister of Defense, Dr. Crispus Kiyonga, that Uganda uses intelligence provided by the U.S. to conduct military operations against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in compliance with Ugandan law and the law of armed conflict. This pledge includes the principles of proportionality, distinction, and humane treatment of captured combatants…

Furthermore, Uganda understands the need to consult with the U.S. in advance if the UPDF intends to use U.S.-supplied intelligence to engage in operations not governed by the law of armed conflict.

In very basic terms, the UPDF was not allowed to use U.S. intelligence for operations that would violate the law of armed conflict, unless the U.S. gave the UPDF some sort of permission to do so in advance.

While this cable makes it clear that our intelligence sharing agreement placed some restraints on the conduct of the UPDF, the fact that the UPDF’s operations were not necessarily tethered to being governed by the law of armed conflict is disconcerting – again, in effect, violations of the law of armed conflict were not categorically forbidden.

While this somewhat unprincipled cable dates back to late 2009, it certainly does raise serious questions about the nature of our support for UPDF operations against Kony and the LRA today.

* * *

The Conduct of the UPDF in the Hunt for Kony

All that said, ambassador Lanier’s cable indicates that, in spite of the glaring loophole mentioned above, the UPDF “performed under both the laws of Uganda and the law of armed conflict,” throughout Operation Lightning Thunder, its offensive against the LRA in 2009.

The UPDF’s “professionalism” throughout these operations is praised by a prominent NGO’s “Uganda-based field researcher” in another secret cable from November 2009, and by a UN Mission to the Congo Senior Advisor in a secret cable from that August.

It would be misleading to suggest that restraints imposed on the UPDF by our intelligence sharing agreement and our support were at the root of their alleged professionalism during these operations. A secret cable from March 2009 indicates that “the absence of verified reports of  [UPDF] human rights abuses” during this period may have had to do with the ambitions of Ugandan President, Yoweri Museveni.

He had a clear interest in building trust with the governments of the countries his troops were intervening in, and he was “fixated on ensuring that his enemies in the diaspora [did] not try to have him charged with war crimes by the International Criminal Court.”

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Invisible Children

From February 2007 to September 2009, Invisible Children is mentioned in a dozen of the leaked State Department cables. These cables shed light on a positive, sometimes collaborative, relationship between the State Department and Invisible Children.

For instance, representatives from Invisible Children — including CEO, Ben Keesey — had a meeting with former US Ambassador to Uganda, Steven Browning, in 2007. In March 2009 a USAID initiativeprovided support for [an Invisible Children] community advocacy campaign” in Uganda.

Former ambassador Browning also acknowledged the role some of Invisible Children’s advocacy campaigns played in the public promotion of Operation Lightning Thunder.

Note, however, that it’s not unusual for the State Department to give the activities of NGO’s consideration and that meetings with NGO’s also do not appear to be particularly uncommon.

* * *

That wraps up this roundup. Nearly 600 cables mention the LRA, so this article barely scratches the surface. You should look through them.

(Image via)



6 Comments

  • [...] Wikileaks And Kony 2012: Does the US Allow The Ugandan Government To Commit …NYU Local… 'incisive' body of Kony 2012 coverage produced by herds of journalists in the days after the viral video was released, I cited several leaked diplomatic cables, published by Wikileaks, which provide some insight on the US role in the hunt for Kony.How Kony Survives and Obasanjo's One Man Peace MissionAllAfrica.comall 3 news articles » [...]

  • Britton T. Burdick
    March 20, 2012

    “‘Uganda uses intelligence provided by the U.S. to conduct military operations against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in compliance with Ugandan law and the law of armed conflict… Uganda understands and acknowledges that misuse of this intelligence could cause the U.S. to end this intelligence sharing relationship.’

    … the fact that the UPDF’s operations were not necessarily tethered to being governed by the law of armed conflict is disconcerting – again, in effect, violations of the law of armed conflict were not categorically forbidden.”

    You seem to be slightly confused. The US Mission in Uganda explicitly stated that if the UPDF were to use US intelligence outside of the laws of combat, the relationship between the two nations would cease.

    If you owned Bob’s Gun Shop and sold rifles, would you feel the need to tell every customer “Don’t run around killing innocent people with that rifle”? Shooting random people is already against the law; it is already “categorically forbidden”. Furthermore, Uganda is a member of the United Nations and is therefore bound by the international treaties and charter of that international body. It would be redundant for the US to spell out, word for word, that using US intelligence information to break international law would be wrong/bad/have consequences.

    The cable also states: “The UPDF’s 4th Division has performed under both the
    laws of Uganda and the law of armed conflict” and that “Uganda stands on its previous record of human rights during this past year’s Operation Lightning Thunder and on our security of US-provided locational information. The U.S. Mission to Uganda has every expectation that this conduct will continue.”

    Under these circumstances it would seem inappropriate, condescending, and unnecessary to explicitly remind a nation, who is in compliance with international laws of combat, not to break them.

    Your characterization of what would seem to me a pretty straightforward matter as a “glaring loophole” strikes me as slightly disingenuous.

  • Michael Youhana
    March 20, 2012

    Britton,

    Thank you for your comment. In the cable, it is made clear that ‘misuse’ of intelligence by Uganda could end the intelligence sharing agreement.

    The cable does not explicitly state that intelligence would be ‘misused,’ if the UPDF were to use US intelligence for operations outside of the law of armed conflict. Actually — as I attempted to make clear in my article — the cable states that the UPDF may be allowed to use intelligence for operations that are not governed by the law of armed conflict, so long as the UPDF, first, consults the US.

    The UPDF is a military force. By definition its operations are military operations, and military operations should always be governed by the law of armed conflict. I found it troubling that the implicit case was made that the UPDF could engage in an operation that would be governed by a set of laws different from — and potentially contradictory to — the law of armed conflict.

    This is what I meant by the US failing to unconditionally forbid violations of the law of armed conflict.

    I’m not a lawyer, and I’m certainly no expert in international law. However it seems that Ambassador Lanier could have, and, in my opinion, should have said the “UPDF must only use US intelligence in operations governed by the law of armed conflict” because the UPDF — again, to the best of my knowledge, by definition — can only engage in operations governed by the law of armed conflict.

    I also urge you to reread the portion of my article on the conduct of the UPDF throughout its 2009 operations against the LRA. You’ll notice that I do, in fact, mention the portion of the cable you cite regarding the UPDF’s compliance with the law of armed conflict.

    Now, as to whether my characterization of the cable is ingenuous or not, I will say this:

    I am not the first person to have found and written about the cable. After conducting some research I realized that a small number of other bloggers and journalists found it independently of me and covered its contents back when it was published — most notably the cable was apparently reported on by Democracy Now, link here: http://www.democracynow.org/2010/12/9/headlines

    To my knowledge, as of this post’s publication date, no journalist online has covered the cable with the nuance I have, especially in regards to its mention of the UPDF’s steadfast compliance with the law of arm conflict throughout 2009.

    Democracy Now’s one paragraph report on the cable is characteristic of the coverage of the matter thus far.

  • Britton T. Burdick
    March 21, 2012

    You make some interesting points, Michael. It is difficult to know exactly what was said or meant when we have such limited context. A few paragraphs-long cable singularly analyzed when there were doubtlessly hundreds (or even thousands) of others between the United States, its Mission in Uganda, and the Ugandan government can hardly be said to be a revealing or explanatory document.

    Democracy Now and you made the same assumption about the meaning of the sentence “Uganda understands the need to consult with the U.S. in advance if the UPDF intends to use U.S.-supplied intelligence to engage in operations not governed by the law of armed conflict.” It is only one assumption, and if you put it into historical context, it doesn’t make for a very compelling interpretation.

    Look closely at the phrase “operations not governed by the law of armed conflict”. Since we have limited context, it is difficult to know what exactly this means, but if we use historical precedence, we might be better off.

    When has the United States ever suggested that it was okay to commit warcrimes as long as it was “consulted” first? It doesn’t make sense that the Ambassador would so casually suggest the US would turn a blind eye to humanitarian issues carried out with the assistance of US intelligence. It doesn’t make sense that a US official would so wantonly imply the US would consent to Ugandan war crimes as long as it got prior warning. How incriminating would that be? “Sure, you can use that gun I gave you. Just know that I’m requiring you to tell me before you murder anyone. That way I can unfriend you on Facebook and stop sharing status updates.”

    It doesn’t make sense. And even if it were the intention to turn a blind eye to laws of conflict violations, I doubt anyone would be stupid enough to put it down in writing. This is why I think it is disingenuous to suggest the US would be complacent with the committal of such crimes by the Ugandan armed forces.

    The cable didn’t say “operations in violation of the laws of armed conflict”, it says “operations not governed by”. An operation is not governed by the laws of armed conflict could mean many things: strategic personnel relocation, securing natural resources, defensive maneuvers, political suppression of domestic opponents, etc. That is to say, any sort of operation that involves the military in a non-combat function.

  • Michael Youhana
    March 21, 2012

    Hi again Britton,

    You say: “It doesn’t make sense that the Ambassador would so casually suggest the US would turn a blind eye to humanitarian issues carried out with the assistance of US intelligence.”

    Well as you note later on in your response, the Ambassador does not merely “casually suggest” that he would “turn a blind eye to humanitarian issues carried out with the assistance of US intelligence.”

    He suggests that the UPDF, a military force, can potentially carry out operations “not governed by the law of armed conflict” with US intelligence. Let’s consider that suggestion. The new legal paradigm that the UPDF, a military force, is governed by, instead of the law of armed conflict, can potentially contradict the law of armed conflict.

    For instance, it can be argued, that drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen violate some law of armed conflict related to aggression. One could conceivably rebut this point by claiming that the law of armed conflict is not applicable to drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen — that they are governed by some other set of laws. Whether or not that claim is true, that newly conceived or applied set of laws would contradict the law of armed conflict.

    I will state, once again, that the UPDF is a military force. Its operations are, by definition, military operations. I will also state that, ultimately, military operations, whether they are combat operations or non-combat operations should always be governed by/subject to the law of armed conflict, not some other legal paradigm that may contradict the law of armed conflict. [by the way, 'defensive maneuvers,' ‘political suppression of domestic opposition,’ and ‘securing natural resources’ are not particularly compelling examples of 'non-combat' military operations.]

    To argue or suggest otherwise is to the open UPDF military operations up to the possibility of being governed by a set of laws that contradict the law of armed conflict. In my previous reply to you I gave an example of what Ambassador Jerry Lanier could have written to unconditionally forbid violations of the law of armed conflict.

    So, while the cable does not actively endorse violations of the law of armed conflict, I repeat, this cable indicates that U.S. officials did not categorically forbid such violations from being carried out, under set conditions. That is a statement of fact, not an assumption or an interpretation.

    Given the UPDF’s checkered history [ http://www.hrw.org/news/2010/10/01/dr-congo-un-report-exposes-grave-crimes ] this fact raises some serious questions.

    And I agree that, “if we use historical precedence, we might be better off” here. Keep in mind that this cable was meant to be secret. There have been plenty of instances in history where US officials have done, said, or suggested dumb, illicit, or grotesque things all while recording themselves in one way or another.

    Here are a few of said instances:

    http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/ch05-01.htm

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cable_243

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/24/iraq-war-logs-us-iraqi-torture and http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/oct/22/iraq-detainee-abuse-torture-saddam

    http://www.salon.com/2010/11/29/wikileaks_yemen_revelations/singleton/

    http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB82/

    http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/it-wouldn-t-be-u-s-concern-if-u-s-s-r-sent-jews-to-gas-chambers-kissinger-told-nixon-1.330106

  • [...] Wikileaks And Kony 2012: Does the U.S. Allow The Ugandan Government To Commit War Crimes?: The article notes that a 2009 cable makes clear that the Ugandan People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) was “not allowed to use U.S. intelligence for operations that would violate the law of armed conflict, unless the U.S. gave the UPDF some sort of permission to do so in advance.” The article also cites cables which shed light on a “positive, sometimes collaborative, relationship between the State Department and Invisible Children,” (the NGO which produced the Kony 2012 film) including their public outreach support for Operation Lightening Thunder. [...]

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