Conflict, complicity and Congo: Clark summit urges informed activism in troubled African nation

Chouchou Namegabe

Chouchou Namegabe stood before a spellbound audience in the Kneller Athletic Center on Saturday and talked about the rape of her country.

“Women’s bodies are being used as a battlefield,” Namegabe said. “Each single case is a tragedy.”

The journalist and activist described how systematic sexual assaults on women and children in east Congo are used to control and destabilize the villages that lie near valuable mineral mines, whose extracted materials power many of the world’s cellphones and computers. The mass rapes, murders, beatings and countless other human rights abuses are weapons of war, she said.

Namegabe’s testimony was part of her keynote address for “Informed Activism: Armed Conflict, Scarce Resources, and Congo,” a two-day international summit that brought students, prominent scholars, activists, and policymakers by the hundreds onto campus for lectures and panel discussions that heightened awareness of the atrocities in Congo and sought strategies to combat them.

♦ Scroll down to view a sample of the wide-ranging media coverage of the Summit. ♦

The conference was presented by the Strassler Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in partnership with Jewish World Watch. Mikaela Luttrell-Rowland ’01, academic program liaison officer at the Strassler Center, was coordinator of the summit organizing committee.

Namegabe noted that the atrocities are rooted in many causes, including a tradition in Africa of women being treated as property; political instability; and the absence of security forces, which allows armed rebels to loot and assault with impunity.

President David Angel

Speaker after speaker on subsequent panels noted that the demand for high technology is helping fuel the conflict in Congo. Cynthia Enloe, research professor in Clark’s International Development, Community, and Environment and Women’s Studies departments, held up her cellphone, saying, “We are all carrying complicity in our pocket or knapsack.” Naama Haviv ’00, M.A. ’06, assistant director of Jewish World Watch, offered an even more starkly worded assessment: “I think my cell phone may have something to do with mass rape in Congo.”

Earlier, Clark University President David Angel announced that Clark is instituting a purchasing policy favoring companies that have made “significant progress” toward conflict-free certification of the minerals they use to manufacture their products. Clark is one of only a handful of colleges and universities nationwide that have such a policy in place.

President Angel said the gathering of so many groups — from scholars doing cutting-edge research to activists on the ground — has created a “community of effective practice” to battle the horrors in Congo. He lauded the persistence of students in the Clark chapter of STAND, a student anti-genocide coalition, who have been pushing for the University to adopt a no-conflict minerals purchasing policy.

Panelist George Weiss, the founder and CEO of Radio La Benevolencija Humanitarian Tools Foundation, broadcasts soap operas and other programs in Congo, Burundi and Rwanda that promote trauma healing. Weiss stressed that the Congo government suffers from widespread corruption that is diverting money from mining operations rather than using it to pay soldiers, judges, police and others who are equipped to offer protection and effect change. Until the government can be reformed, the current situation will be difficult to remedy, he said.

The events in Congo “challenge us all to have dialogues about human dignity. To draw a line in the sand and say, ‘The line is here,’” said Chloe Schwenke, of the U.S. Agency for International Development. “Human dignity is under no greater assault than in the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Schwenke asserted that the Obama administration will support leaders of African nations who exhibit integrity.

Fidel Bafilemba of the Enough Project

Kambale Musavuli, student coordinator for Friends of the Congo, urged a youth movement similar to the one that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East. “Half of the population of Congo is under the age of eighteen — here is a prescription [for protest]. No one is addressing how to empower Congolese youth,” he said. Musavuli also pushed for more U.S. involvement, saying he wants President Obama to visit Congo.

Naama Haviv said the correlation between cellphones and war in Congo “has opened minds to the conflict some of us have been screaming about for fifteen years.” Focusing on conflict minerals is a good first step toward addressing the conflict, she said. “Let’s make it as long a stride as possible.”

Haviv, who served on a panel with Adam Keith, desk officer for the African Great Lakes Region in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs, was critical of international efforts in Congo, including U.S. policy, which she said are poorly coordinated. Aid to Congo and its neighboring countries needs to be leveraged against those nations’ willingness to halt the brutality, she said.

The unfathomable degree of the horrors in Congo necessitates a new vocabulary with which to describe them, insisted Grace Akallo, IDSC/M.A. ’10, who led a panel in Dana Commons. “This is not just sex and violence, this is something else that needs to be defined,” she said. “‘Sex’ is not enough [of a description]. ‘Violence’ is not enough. It’s a crime against humanity.”

Akallo said many African nations regard women as property, and as such the exploitation of women is as easily rationalized as the exploitation of mineral mines. This institutionalized discrimination intensifies during periods of conflict, and “women’s bodies are turned into a symbolic warfront on which warriors fight their enemy.”

Accountability must be demanded, she said, and perpetrators must be prosecuted “to break the culture of impunity.”

In her introductory comments, Debórah Dwork, the Rose Professor of Holocaust History and director of the Strassler Center, noted that if similar citizen activism had been in play during the Jewish Holocaust it “could have shaped a very different course.”

She told the audience: “Now is the time to raise our voices. Now is the time to chart a way forward. Now is the time to move and act.”

-          Jim Keogh, Director of News and Editorial Services

Below are links to media coverage of the “Informed Activism” summit.