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Lecture discusses turmoil in Congo

Katie Peralta | Monday, March 29, 2010

The 18th annual Student Peace Conference, sponsored by the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, kicked off its weekend events Friday with a talk by keynote speaker John Prendergast, founder of the Enough Project, which aims to end genocide and crimes against humanity.

Prendergast’s organization also works to inform Americans how they might, as consumers, indirectly be perpetuating torture and genocide in developing nations like the Congo.

Naunihal Singh, assistant professor of political science and fellow at the Institute for International Peace Studies, delivered opening remarks about Prendergast’s work.

“[He is] empowering people in society who are not part of government,” Singh said. “He is reaching out to people who think they do not have a lot to say or do about foreign policy.”

Prendergast, who has authored eight books about Africa and also worked as a special advisor to the Department of State under the Clinton administration, focused Friday’s talk on the illegal usurpation of minerals and torture in the Congo.

“Nothing else [is] remotely on par … with the quantity of human misery in the Congo,” he said. “Our standard of living comes at the expense of human beings.”

Prendergast said minerals like tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold come from the Congo and are used to power electric devices like cell phones and laptops.

“The Congo has between one-fifth and one-seventh of the world’s tin,” Prendergast said. “It’s for sale, it’s open for business and people are coming to take what they will.”

Militia groups smuggle minerals out of the Congo and sell them to international markets, Prendergast said, and hundreds of millions of dollars fund the groups going in to seize the minerals and force the local people to comply with their demands. 

He told the story of a 57-year-old Congolese woman and schoolteacher who wanted to supplement her salary by selling salt, acquired from local mines.

She was taken by militiamen and was raped daily before finally escaping after two years.
“It took a long time for the physical injuries to heal, but even longer for the emotional injuries to heal,” Prendergast said.

The woman, he said, went on to mentor other women who had experienced situations similar to hers.

Prendergast said rape is the tool of war in the Congo, much like amputation in Sierra Leone and land mines in Angola.

The link between consumer demands of products that utilize minerals like tin and the violence that occurs in the Congo is a direct one, Prendergast said, and the job of consumers, therefore, is to demand conflict-free products.

“People like us have to make people aware that their purchases … have an impact on millions and millions of people,” he said. “We have to tell the companies that are benefitting from these [atrocities] that we demand conflict-free products.”

Prendergast said big companies like Apple and Hewlett Packard have the most power to implement “change on the ground.”

“If we can influence the big dogs they will subsequently put pressure to clean up the process,” he said. “It turns out often they do want to learn about the process and change it.”

He said the ultimate goal of consumers should be the obtainment of minerals by peaceful and legal means through a global certification scheme. 

Prendergast said a complete boycott of products is an unrealistic demand and advocates that people instead use their power as consumers and voters to voice a demand for change. 

“We have to demonstrate that there would be a market for conflict-free products,” he said.
He also encouraged contacting elected officials like Sen. Richard Lugar, the Republican leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, to voice support of legislation favoring a certification scheme of peaceful mineral obtainment.

Prendergast encouraged audience members to educate family members and friends about the comprehensive consumer campaign he advocates.

“Why do people get involved with causes? The third most popular reason is some kind of clever ad they’re responding to,” he said. “The second reason is because a celebrity advocated involvement and the top reason is because a family member or friend asked them.”

Prendergast also advocated the move toward a campus free of conflict products.

“The individual has a certain amount of power but a campus body will have even more influence,” he said.