Last week we celebrated a long and hard fought human rights victory: the conviction of Thomas Lubanga, a Congolese warlord, by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the war crime of using children in armed conflict.
Video of child soldiers and interviews with (former) child soldiers, filmed by our partner AJEDI-Ka in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was one of the key pieces of evidence that convinced the prosecutors at the ICC to focus on child soldiers for its first trial and to charge Lubanga.
Thanks to the leadership and advocacy of WITNESS' Bukeni Waruzi, Program Manager for Africa and the Middle East, video was an instrumental tool in making that verdict happen.
As the executive director of WITNESS, an organization that has as its raison d'etre "Seeing Is Believing," I deeply believe that visualizing people's stories is a means to achieve real human rights change. The understanding that video storytelling can be the tipping point in human rights advocacy is programmed deeply into our DNA.
WITNESS was founded almost 20 years ago on a then revolutionary idea: the power of video to move people to action. We support human rights defenders and activists worldwide to successful incorporate video in their campaigns for change.
We are not the lead actors in the videos that WITNESS helps create: people closest to the issues to speak for themselves. Often the voices in our partners' videos are those of survivors of human rights abuses who chose to participate so that their story can make a difference. The goal of our partners' campaigns is always to see change in human rights policy, practice or behavior.
We are of course not the only ones doing this.
In recent days, the world has watched "Kony 2012," the Web video produced by the nonprofit Invisible Children. A huge global discussion ensued. There has been much critique and much engagement in the issues facing communities in Northern Uganda and the surrounding region. There have been questions about the role of the U.S. and any other country not directly affected in the hunt for Joseph Kony, the importance of listening to the voices of people "on-the-ground," the factual misrepresentations in the video about the issue and the conflict, and the dangers of over-simplification.
In the Lubanga case, it was closed-door screenings at the ICC, and targeted screenings for decisions makers, not millions of hits on YouTube, that were instrumental to ensuring Lubanga was charged with war crimes. But in the "Kony 2012" campaign that is aimed at pressuring the U.S. government, a great amount of interest and accompanying outcry from its own citizenry could be impactful, particularly when it is youth speaking to elected officials.
There is one essential common ingredient between WITNESS' methodology and that of Invisible Children: using video as a tool to catalyze a movement.
With much respect to the legitimacy of the debate around "Kony 2012," there is a single sentence that keeps pushing itself into focus before my eyes: we have to open the eyes of the world to human rights abuses.
It all starts with that one key thing: the story must be told. It is written into our own mission statement: "WITNESS uses the power of video to open the eyes of the world to human rights abuses."
That is what our video "A Duty to Protect" did when it was screened before the ICC to convince it to arrest and charge Thomas Lubanga for crimes against humanity.
"Kony 2012" has done exactly that and there is now an opportunity to turn millions of people, especially youth, who are now paying attention into human rights advocates or better-informed citizens who can become participants in the struggle for human rights.
I have experienced, first hand, the impact of the use of video as a way to turn people's personal stories of abuse into powerful tools for justice. Now it is up to us human rights defenders, policymakers, activists, and global campaigners to make sure that once the eyes are opened, the complexities are explained, the right voices are heard and real and lasting justice is accomplished.