Roth Discusses U.S. Intervention In Uganda

Human Rights Watch has long lobbied the U.S. government to take action against the Lord's Resistance Army, a rebel group that has terrorized central Africa since the 1980s. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth talks to Melissa Block about President Obama's announcement late last week that about 100 members of the U.S. military will be sent to Uganda to help the local government combat the rebels.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now to Central Africa and to President Obama's decision last week to send some 100 armed military advisers there. The troops are being sent to help in the fight against the brutal Lord's Resistance Army, which started in Uganda in the 1980s. The LRA is accused of widespread atrocities including massacres, mutilation, rape, and the kidnapping of children who are turned into child soldiers. The group Human Rights Watch has been pushing for U.S. intervention against the LRA. And executive director Kenneth Roth joins me now to talk about that. Mr. Roth, welcome to the program.

KENNETH ROTH: Thanks for having me, Melissa.

BLOCK: Your group, Human Rights Watch, produced a video last year. It's called "Dear Obama: a Message from Victims of the Lord's Resistance Army." And I wanted to play just the - a bit of the top of that video.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

(Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

BLOCK: Kenneth Roth, who are we hearing from in this video? What is their message to President Obama?

ROTH: We are hearing from residents of northern Democratic Republic of Congo. These are just local villagers who live in the area that has been ravaged by the Lord's Resistance Army, and they are pleading to President Obama to do something to help them. The Lord's Resistance Army is really one of the most brutal, vicious forces around. And it exists by essentially approaching a village, killing as many adults as it can find and then kidnapping the children, some just shockingly young, and forcing the boys to become child soldiers and the girls, in essence, to become so-called bush wives. It is just creating havoc in this part of the world, but the area is so remote that most people have no idea that it's going on.

BLOCK: And talk a bit, if you would, please, about leader Joseph Kony, the head of this brutal force, the Lord's Resistance Army.

ROTH: Well, I've obviously never met Kony, very few people have, but he is described as a charismatic figure who, I think, in a sense sees himself as having a direct pipeline to the Lord, hence the name the Lord's Resistance Army. He certainly wanted to overthrow the Ugandan government, but he never presented a formal political program. It's not as if he offered a vision of what a LRA-led government would look like. He was simply against the government, which is against him. This is a programmatically empty group that really exists mainly for the purpose of perpetuating itself.

BLOCK: We mentioned that these atrocities have been going on now for decades. Why do you think President Obama took this action now, to send these 100 U.S. troops into the region as advisers?

ROTH: I think he took the step now because in a sense this is a good opportunity. The Lord's Resistance Army is more isolated than it had been. When it was operating in northern Uganda, it was a more formidable force. Having been chased into northern Congo, it really has been reduced, by most estimates, to, say, 200, 250 core fighters and then several hundred abducted fighters in addition.

BLOCK: Would there be, though, the risk that U.S. troops and their lives would be put in danger, would be put in harm's way?

ROTH: Well, I do think it's important not to minimize the power of the Lord's Resistance Army. There was an earlier effort by a fairly ill-equipped Guatemalan force to go after Kony, and those troops, a number of them were killed. So this is not a risk-free operation. That said, this is not an invasion by any means. The various governments of the region are eager to see Kony captured. And so this is very much an invited presence, not in any sense a military invasion.

BLOCK: Is there congressional support for an action like this?

ROTH: Yes. The Congress adopted legislation in May 2010, by an overwhelming bipartisan margin, urging the Obama administration to come up with a plan to protect the civilians of northern Congo and to apprehend Kony. In fact, I think this is probably the most popular Africa initiative in a long, long time.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch. Mr. Roth, thanks very much.

ROTH: Thanks so much for having me.

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