Is Joseph Kony Committing Genocide or Not


Human beings have been involved in conflicts with each other from historical times. These conflicts are mostly characterized by the killing of people and the destruction of property. While in the past there were no rules followed in conflicts and the warring parties sought victory at any cost, today’s society demands that conflicts obey some rules. Specifically, there are some crimes which are condemned by the civilized world even in the context of a legitimate armed conflict.

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One of these crimes is genocide which is strongly denounced by the international community. Individuals who are accused of perpetrating genocide are tried under international tribunals and if found guilty, they are given harsh sentences. For example, in the trials by the ad-hoc tribunal on charges of genocide in the former Yugoslavia, General Radislav Krstic was found guilty of genocide for the role he played in the killing of thousands of male Bosnians.1 He was subsequently sentenced to 46 years in jail for his role in this massacre. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is also currently investigating a number of individuals on charges of genocide.

Some people are demanding that Joseph Kony2, the leader of the Ugandan armed rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) be tried for genocide. These demands are made on the basis of the numerous atrocities and human right violations that the LRA has committed under the leadership of Kony. This paper will argue that the crimes committed by Joseph Kony cannot be considered as genocide. However, the paper will demonstrate that Kony’s crimes warrant action from the ICC.

Genocide a Definition

“Genocide” is a fairly new term and it was invented following in 1944 as a result of the need to give a name to the Jewish holocaust which was until then “a crime without a name”. The term was coined by Professor Raphael Lemkin from the Greek word “genos” which means “people” and the Latin suffic “cide” which means murder. The term “genocide” therefore roughly translates to “the murder of a people” which was the idea that Lemkin wanted to capture.3 The United Nations General Assembly accepted that genocide was a crime under international law and set out to come up with a legal definition for genocide. The Genocide Convention of 1948 states that the crime of genocide consists of any of the following series of acts:

Committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily harm, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part, Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.4

Genocide is unique from other crimes since for genocide to occur, the perpetrator has to specifically target victims on the basis on of their group identity with a deliberate intention of causing the destruction of the group itself. Researchers and scholars assert that knowledge by the perpetrator that his actions could result in genocide does not make him guilty of genocide; he must also have an explicit goal of having the genocide as the end product.5

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History of the Ugandan Conflict

The conflict between the LRA and the government can trace its roots to the years of colonization. During this period, European expansionism led to the state of Uganda being constructed to exploit the differences between northern and southern Uganda.6 After attaining independence from Britain, Uganda took to the trend of politicizing violence. All Ugandan presidents have secured political power through the use of the military.

The LRA emerged from the ruins of the Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) which had toppled the dictator Idi Amin. The UNLA was predominantly made up of northern troops and they therefore fled from the capital Kampala to their native northern region following the rising to power of the National Resistance Army (NRA) which was led by the current Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni.7 The ex UNLA members were fearful of reprisal by the NRA due to the past atrocities that the UNLA had committed at the command of the previous regimes. The fears were confirmed when the NRA began mistreating the Northern population which led to the north forming armed groups for defense against imminent southern occupation.

Popular uprising by the North was started by a woman named Alice who claimed to be the medium for a spirit and she started the Holy Spirit Movement (HSM) which recruited soldiers who waged war against the National Resistance Army NRA which was led by Yoweri Museveni. The HSM was successful for a few months but fell under the NRA in late 1987. Joseph Kony emerged as the successor to Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement. To some extent, the formation of Kony’s rebel group was prompted by human right abuses against the Acholi by the Museveni government. This is a theoretically sound assertion since as O’Flaherty notes, most conflicts are initiated by human rights abuses such as the oppression of minority group in a country.8

Joseph Kony: Brief History

Joseph Kony is the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) which is a non-state armed group which engages in acts of violence which are primarily directed against the civilian population of northern Uganda. Kony first emerged as the successor to Alice Lakwena’s Holy Spirit Movement and he also styled himself as a spirit medium in early 1987. His movement took up the name “Lord’s Army” demonstrating the religious philosophy that Kony followed. The group later changed its name to “Lord’s Resistance Army” and it was able to attract popular support in the late 1980s. This support was because the population viewed this group as a formidable fighting apparatus that could present a credible counterforce to the NRA.

Due to the local support that the LRA enjoyed, it was able to get a number of followers from the UNLA and the local population9. These followers joined the movement and they actively engaged in its military operations. However, this popular support was short lived and by the early 1990s, the group had little support from the local population and it could therefore not recruit new members to join in its campaigns.

In the early 1990s, the Ugandan government forces undertook aggressive military operations against the LRA with the aim of moving them away from the local population10. The government assumed that by the LRA from the local population, the group would die out naturally due to lack of new members as well as resource with which to continue engaging in the way. However, this tactic by the government forces resulted in more attacks on the populace by the LRA.11 From 1991, the LRA embarked on large-scale attacks on ordinary civilian population as well as community buildings such as schools and clinics.

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Why Kony’s Acts do not qualify as Genocide

As can be seen from the above discussions, the LRA has engaged in many acts of atrocity under the leadership of Joseph Kony. Even so, the actions by Kony do not constitute Genocide. Professor Raphael Lemkin who is credited with fashioning the word “genocide” argues that genocide has to be directed against “a national group as an entity, and the acts of violence perpetrated are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group”.12 While it is true that Kony targets the Northern people who are Acholi, he does this since he views them as collaborators with the government. In addition to this, the attacks against the Northern tribes are not aimed at the complete destruction of the Acholi people. In genocide, the destruction of the group “must aim at ending the group as a national, ethnical, racial or religious entity”.13

Kony’s rebel group is especially notorious for attacking civilians since they offer less resistance that the Government forces. Even so, the LRA does engage military targets and resources whenever they have an opportunity. It can therefore be seen that the LRA engaged in arbitrary and random acts of destruction as opposed to specifically targeting certain groups. An ad-hoc tribunal which was established by the UN to try violations of international humanitarian law committed in the former Yugoslavia acquitted Goran Jelisic, a former commander of a detention camp of the charge of genocide since he had killed arbitrarily rather that with “an affirmed resolve to destroy in whole or in part a group as such”.14

By applying the same standards on Kony, it is evident that he kills in an arbitrary manner and his goal is not the destruction of any specific group. In addition to this, terror tactics against civilian populations are a commonly employed strategy by many rebel groups to weaken the support for their opponents

Lemkin who invented the term “genocide” was moved to introduce the term primarily by two large events; the Jewish massacre by Hitler and the action of the Ottoman Turks against the Armenians.15 The scale of death and destruction caused by Kony are small when compared to these two historical incidents. As it currently stands, Kony’s actions have resulted in the displacement of over 1.5 million people and has caused hundreds of deaths and destruction turning the northern regions of Uganda into a humanitarian disaster.16 This number of deaths is significantly lower that that of the Armenians under the Ottoman Turks or the Jews under Hitler. In addition to this, close observers note that most of the LRA’s attacks are ‘publicity-grabbing’ and designed to assert (or reassert) that Kony remains a force to be reckoned with in the region.17

The LRA has been responsible for Mass murder in the Northern region of Uganda and for this reason; there have been calls for Kony to be tried for Genocide. While mass murder is without doubt an evil act, it does not on its own constitute genocide. Boghossian states that mass murder must be done in the context of the targeting of a particular group to qualify as genocide.18 The LRA is guilty of targeting members of the Acholi whom it blames for deserting its cause to overthrow the Ugandan government. However, the rebels are not guilty of targeting the group as a whole which makes Kony excused from any accusations of perpetrating genocide. The two major reasons why Kony attacks the Acholi civilians are to punish them for siding with the government as well as alienating the government from the people.

For a crime to be termed as genocide, the perpetrator must have the destruction of a group as his/her desired outcome19. In the case of the Jewish holocaust, Hitler and his top Nazi officials were aiming for the complete eradication of the Jewish people. The initial goals of Kony’s LRA were the overthrowing of the Ugandan government and establishing a new regime. These goals have disappeared over the years and the goals of the LRA are today obscure. However, Kony’s goals have never been the destruction of any group and Kony has never publicly or privately stated his intention to destroy any particular group20. His actions also clearly show that he is not aiming to destroy any group.

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ICC Actions against Kony

The International Criminal Court which has been in operation for a decade is an international judicial organ that was created to try individuals accused of committing genocide and other crimes under international law. This court fosters international consensus that supports a rule of law that defines genocide and other crimes against humanity as “crimes condemned by the civilized world”.21 Joseph Kony has been a person of interest for the ICC. As of 2007, it was estimated that the LRA had engaged in the abduction of an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 children.22 While international law explicitly prohibits the use of children in hostilities, Kony has continued to capitalize on the recruitment, conscription and active use of children to wage his wars.

Kabatsi forcefully asserts that the world should not wait to validate that a mass murder is indeed genocide so that it can move in to protect the victims of these crimes.23 As such, while Kony is not guilty of genocide, the ICC issued a warrant of arrest against him in 2005. This warrant charged the LRA leader with 33counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including the forceful conscription of children in the groups’ army.24 The intervention of the ICC in the case of the LRA has had a positive impact on the region. The issue of the arrest warrants to Kony and other top leaders of the LRA motivated the leadership to enter into negotiations with the government so as to try and end the 24 year war that the LRA has been waging against the Ugandan government.25


The armed conflict between Kony’s rebel movement and the Ugandan government has continued to rage for over two decades. While the war in north Uganda is supposed to be between the Ugandan government forces and the LRA, the victims of the war are predominantly civilians of the northern Ugandan region. The initial goal of the LRA was to overthrow the Ugandan government, the group lost its local support and therefore abandoned this goals. The group’s goals at the present remain vague and some researchers even suggest that Kony has no political or social agenda.26

Kony’s actions do not currently qualify as genocide, but even so, this individual has shown that he has the will to engage in widespread acts of violence. The international community through the ICC should therefore take priority to prevent a genocide that might be committed by Kony and his rebel group by arresting him and prosecuting him immediately. The ICC is mandated to focus upon the gravest crimes and the atrocities carried out by the LRA under Kony’s leadership fall under this category27. The recent conviction of the Congolese War Lord, Thomas Lubanga by the ICC, on charges of recruiting and enlisting child soldiers demonstrates the strong stand by the international community against the use of child soldiers.


This paper has argued that while Joseph Kony is involved in crimes against humanity, his actions are not genocide. The paper began by affirming that even in conflicts, there are crimes which are denounced by the international community. The paper then traced the formation of the LRA to 1987 and noted that while the LRA was formed as a result of legitimate fears by the Northern people, the rebel group quickly lost favor with the civilians it claimed to represent. Since then, Kony has engaged in activities which are a direct breach of international law applicable to armed conflicts but are not genocide. From these revelations, a review of the actions that the ICC can do to stop Kony has been made. It has been proposed that the ICC should arrest and prosecute Kony on crimes of human rights abuses and especially the use of child soldiers.


Bevan, James. “The Myth of Madness: Cold Rationality and ‘Resource’ Plunder by the Lord’s Resistance Army.” Civil Wars 9, no.4 (2007): 43–358.

Boghossian, Paul. “The concept of genocide.” Journal of Genocide Research 12, no.1 (2010): 69-90.

Chung, Christine. “The punishment and prevention of genocide: the international criminal court as a benchmark of progress and need.” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 40, no.1 (2008):227-242.

Guenter, Lewy. “Can there be genocide without the intent to commit genocide?” Journal of Genocide Research 9, no.4 (2007): 661–674.

Kabatsi, Freda. “Defining or Diverting Genocide: Changing the Comportment of Genocide.” International Criminal Law Review 5, no.2 (2005): 387–400.

Noll, Christian. “The betrayed: an exploration of the Acholi opinion of the international criminal court.” Journal of Third World Studies 26, no.1 (2009): 99-119.

O’Flaherty, Michael. “Human rights monitoring and armed conflict: challenges for the UN.” Disarmament Forum 3, no.1 (2004): 47-57.

UNICEF. Machel study 10-year strategic review: children and conflict in a changing world. Geneva: UNICEF, 2009.


  1. Lewy Guenter, “Can there be genocide without the intent to commit genocide?” Journal of Genocide Research 9, no.4 (2007): 663.
  2. Lewy, 663.
  3. Paul Boghossian, “The concept of genocide,” Journal of Genocide Research 12, no.1 (2010): 70.
  4. Paul, 70.
  5. Levy, 661.
  6. Christian Noll, The betrayed: an exploration of the Acholi opinion of the international criminal court,” Journal of Third World Studies 26, no.1 (2009): 100.
  7. James Bevan, “The Myth of Madness: Cold Rationality and ‘Resource’ Plunder by the Lord’s Resistance Army,” Civil Wars 9, no.4 (2007): 343.
  8. Michael O’Flaherty, “Human rights monitoring and armed conflict: challenges for the UN.” Disarmament Forum 3, no. 1 (2004): 47.
  9. James, 343.
  10. James, 343.
  11. James, 345.
  12. Freda Kabatsi, “Defining or Diverting Genocide: Changing the Comportment of Genocide,” International Criminal Law Review 5, no.2 (2005): 389.
  13. Lewy, 662.
  14. Lewy, 663.
  15. Paul, 70.
  16. James, 343.
  17. James, 350.
  18. Paul, 73.
  19. Paul, 70.
  20. James, 343.
  21. Christine Chung, The punishment and prevention of genocide: the international criminal court as a benchmark of progress and need,” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 40, no.1 (2008): 228.
  22. James, 343.
  23. Freda, 389.
  24. UNICEF, Machel study 10-year strategic review: children and conflict in a changing world (Geneva: UNICEF, 2009), 206.
  25. Christine, 233.
  26. James, 343.
  27. Christine, 229.

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