Congo violence is focus of Clark University summit
Activists raising awareness in national campaign
WORCESTER - It could have been a college course entitled: Political Activism Today: Catchiness or Complexity?
Some 400 participants, mostly campus political activists, came to Clark University yesterday to bolster momentum for a national campaign to reduce the brutal violence plaguing mineral-rich east Congo. Among the dozens of speakers was a recent Clark graduate who delivered what has become her generation’s impassioned sound-bite on the issue.
“I think my cellphone may have something to do with mass rape in the Congo,’’ said Naama Haviv of Jewish World Watch, an organization dedicated to combating genocide.
Yet others urged the crowd to think less in snappy, Twitter-friendly phrases and more about the complex historical root causes of the violence in Congo. They suggested that many of the nation’s top producers of mobile phones, which obtain minerals from Congo to make their devices, are only a small part of the problem.
Congo’s future, said one native of the African country, will come from homegrown political solutions by its young people, not Americans deciding to choose mobile phones from manufacturers who only use minerals obtained from “conflict-free’’ areas.
“Give Congo back to its youth,’’ said Kambale Musavuli, student coordinator of Friends of the Congo, a group dedicated to bring peace to the nation.
The conference did not produce a roadmap for US college students trying to make a difference in the war-torn country, though many participants sensed increased momentum on the issue and believe the US public-relations focus on “conflict-free’’ cellphones at least heightens awareness of violence in the region.
“Even if it’s a bit gimmicky, it gets people’s attention,’’ said Anna Vorenberg, 20, a junior at Clark, one of nearly 40 colleges represented at the conference. “The cellphones provide a tangible connection.’’
Faced with student lobbying, Clark University’s president David Angel also announced yesterday that the school agreed to be a “conflict-free’’ institution, meaning that it will take into consideration an electronic company’s commitment to “conflict-free’’ products before using it as a vendor.
Clark may now be the fourth college to make such a pledge, said Daniel Solomon, a Georgetown University student who has been active on Congo issues. The other “conflict-free’’ schools so far are Stanford University, Westminster College in Fulton, Mo., and the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, he said.
The weekend conference, “Informed Activism: Armed Conflict, Scarce Resources, and the Congo,’’ featured speakers representing the State Department, the US Agency for International Development, and a wide range of academic institutions. The keynote speaker was Chouchou Namegabe, a Congo native who won the Knight International Journalism Award for exposing the magnitude of sexual violence in her homeland.
According to Enough, a Washington D.C.-based human rights group which has published preliminary ranking of electronics companies for their “conflict-free’’ policies, the connection between cell phones and east Congo’s violence is clear: Profitable mineral trade is one of the main reasons behind armed conflict, which it describes as the deadliest since World War II. These armed groups trade in tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, which contribute to the electrical-storage and vibrating elements of cellphones, among other things.
Tracking the international supply chain of these minerals is difficult, this advocacy group said, but Americans must try to discern how much of their electronic devices use resources obtained from armed groups that commit atrocities, including mass rape.
Several campus leaders at the conference said they want to think deeply and broadly about the Congo problem but often face pressure to boil down their pitch into a snappy presentations. Today’s college generation, they said, face the Herculean challenge of explaining complex, scientific global issues, including climate change, to a generation with short attention spans.
Ben Brockman, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, said classmates ignorant of the Congo problem often ask for an explanation, then add, “Give it to me in 30 seconds.’’
Patricia Wen can be reached at email@example.com.