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Returning to our roots: ACIR and ‘conflict-minerals’

By most standard measures, Duke was supposed to have a pretty typical year in 1997. President Nan Keohane was returning to office, hoping to initiate a university-wide dialogue on the importance of race relations on campus. Our beloved Coach Wojo was the starting point guard for our basketball team, recently coming off an ACC regular season championship. Indeed, that Duke might not have looked that much different than ours today. Although the year started off in rather ordinary fashion, the Duke community—as well as the nation—was in for an extraordinary surprise.

It all started when a group of undergrads, led by student Tico Almeida, returned back to campus with an ambitious dream. After it became apparent than inhumane working conditions were being forced upon workers in garment and clothing factories, they were moved that such injustice was so commonly accepted within an entire industry. How could this be normal in the modern era? They couldn’t be quiet. Realizing apparel carrying the Duke brand was itself licensed to manufacturers who were violating fundamental human rights, they decided it was time to stand up and leverage the voice of our University to call for social justice.

What followed was the birth of a movement. Students Against Sweatshops took campus by storm, mobilizing Duke students to voice their opinions and call for action and even hosting a 31-hour peaceful sit-in in President Keohane’s office. Their campaign set a historic precedent, pushing Duke to be the first university in the nation to require all apparel vendors to sign an ethical code of conduct and disclose locations of their production factories. Their progress sent shockwaves, receiving coverage in outlets like The New York Times and placing the issue squarely in the realm of public debate. Within a year, their movement had spread to over 100 universities, and major clothing manufacturers like Nike and Adidas had no choice but to pay attention and act.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of the Students Against Sweatshops movement, and perhaps fittingly, we’ve arrived at a similar moment where Duke students have the ability to stand up and lead in a movement for human rights. Tomorrow, Wednesday, April 4, Duke’s Advisory Committee for Investment Responsibility is convening for the first time in five years to deliberate on investments in companies sourcing “conflict-minerals” from eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. War in the area has claimed over five million lives, and due to an epidemic of sexual violence U.N. Representative Margaret Walström has called the region the “rape capital of the world.” Numerous armed militias have ravaged the region through sustained warfare, and in many cases, have exploited Congo’s vast mineral reserves through coercion and taxation of miners as a key source of financial sustainability. These minerals (tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold) are utilized by a wide variety of industries, but most notably by the consumer electronics industry. In 2010, a provision of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act called upon corporations with possible connections to the DRC to disclose information about their mineral supply chains. But unfortunately, regulations to be issued by the SEC have been delayed for over a year and a half.

Now, more than ever, it’s time for us to stand up. The hearing on Wednesday commences a multi-week deliberation period when ACIR consults experts and decides whether to recommend a resolution to President Brodhead, who can then pass it on to the Board of Trustees. If passed, Duke would join Stanford and become only the second university to pass a “proxy-vote” resolution, which would pledge our support to shareholder movements supporting oversight and transparency within relevant companies in which we invest. Though the proxy-voting resolution is a small, symbolic act compared to the Students Against Sweatshops movement, it is a humble first step that will signal to other universities, the general public and most importantly, technology companies, that ethical supply chains are a key priority.

We’re not that much different today from those students who came 15 years before us, and we never really have been. Our thoughts and aspirations still center around a vision of social change—as did theirs. Our minds, hearts and guts still have visceral reactions to gross injustice—as did theirs. Our convictions still tell us that this University has the moral courage to not just describe the status quo, but to transform it—as did theirs. Together, we can write a new chapter to this lasting story. We hope you stand with us at the ACIR hearing Wednesday evening as we pay tribute to a legacy of action at Duke.

Liz Hannah, Trinity ’14, Saira Butt, Trinity ’15 and Sanjay Kishore, Trinity ’13 are members of the Coalition for a Conflict-Free Duke. This column is the 11th installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written by dPS members addressing civic service and engagement at Duke. Follow dPS on Twitter @dukePS

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