Duke students have proven to be leaders in the nationwide movement to discourage American electronics companies from including conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in their supply chains, said human rights activist and best-selling author John Prendergast in a presentation Thursday.
After successfully pressuring the Board of Trustees to adopt an investment guideline that requires the University to scrutinize the supply chains of electronics companies in which they invest, Duke students must now encourage other university students to continue the effort, he said. In turn, this will cut off funding to rebel groups that are perpetuating a gruesome civil war in the Congo—the deadliest war in the world since World War II.
Organized by the Nicholas School of Environment, Prendergast, who has been working on human rights issues in Africa for almost 30 years, gave a talk entitled “Ending the Deadliest War in the World: Conflict-Free Phones and Congo,” Thursday evening. His lecture focused on the hundreds of thousands of cases of sexual violence inflicted upon Congolese women and girls by the numerous rebel groups funded by mining conflict minerals—tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold—that go into the electronics Americans use everyday, such as phones and computers.
“Sexual violence is at the center of rebel groups’ methodology to control the lucrative economic arrangement,” Pendergrast said. “All groups use rape as a means of social control. They target women to humiliate and destroy the will of the community.”
The Congolese government has adopted a mob mentality with respect to the coveted minerals in the resource-rich country, Prendergast explained. Instead of focusing on developing the economy or social services in response to the looting, the Congolese government has instead organized the state to benefit from the looting and privatized the wealth base of the country so that the generals and top politicians profit.
“All the money that should be taxed and used to help develop the country is going into the pockets of individual people at the top of the food chain,” he said.
But Prendergast is hopeful for a peaceful future in the Congo because the burgeoning conflict-free movement is beginning to gain momentum in the United States.
“A movement is forming here in the United States to pressure companies and governments to change the way they do business, so they don’t underwrite and profit from this nightmare,” Prendergast said. “That is the answer—building alliances and solidarity with those on the ground and battling for change.”
The role of students is a crucial aspect of the conflict-free movement, Prendergast noted. Electronics companies are incentivized to listen to students and young people as they comprise the largest demographic of purchasers in the electronics market.
“If young people as a demographic group demand an alteration in product—whether it’s what the color of the product is or how it works or what its features are or, in this case, what misery it’s creating in its creation—then the companies are going to respond to that,” he added.
He praised Duke’s Coalition for a Conflict-Free Duke, an alliance of student groups dedicated to increasing awareness and action surrounding the conflict in the Congo, noting that it has been central to the movement.
“We started last year in order to pressure Duke to take a stance on the issue of conflict minerals and to use our leverage as a thought leader to affect real change,” said junior Stefani Jones, co-founder of CCFD. “We successfully lobbied the Board of Trustees last year to adopt an investment guideline for electronics companies who use these minerals in their products.”
Jones added that, after CCFD saw much success at Duke, the organization is now looking to partner with other schools in the region to proliferate its mission.
Prendergast called CCFD’s work a “tremendous success,” adding that the group should serve as a great example of the kind of action students and universities should be taking. In the summer of 2012, Duke became the second school nationwide to pass such a shareholder resolution, following Stanford University in 2010.
“They’re quite a groundbreaking organization,” Prendergast said of CCFD. “They’re national leaders in the student movement that’s dealing with these issues of conflict minerals.”
To promote awareness and escalate the student movement, Prendergast launched the Raise Hope for Congo campaign as part of the Enough Project, which he founded to end genocide and human rights issues.
“Raise Hope for Congo sponsored our campus initiative where we have about 120 schools across the country that are now following in the footsteps of what Duke did in April,” Prendergast said. “It’s only a year old, so we’re trying to build a campus-led movement of young people.”
Prendergast said it is imperative that the movement continues to build, and students must not allow companies and politicians to perpetuate such “heinous hate crimes.”
“[Prendergast is] a thought leader of this movement, and it was great to have him come lay it out and [lay out] the logic behind advocating for minerals and resources regulated here at Duke,” said CCFD’s other co-founder Sanjay Kishore, a senior. “This event exposes us to a community that has a much richer set of experiences to draw from that are still passionate about this issue, which could lead to better informed advocacy in the future.”