Interview with John Prendergast, Co-Founder, Enough Project

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In this interview, John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, discusses the international justice system and the new ground forged by Invisible Children's Kony 2012 campaign in galvanizing civil society to engage in an issue which before had gone unnoticed by the public.

Prendergast says the most important outcome of that campaign, which logged over 100 million views of its YouTube video, was that it generated political pressure. "That’s the essential point that needs to be understood, is that this has had a political impact. That now you have the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives and the Obama Administration all united much more clearly and openly to enhance their efforts to support the African nations, which are undertaking the effort to try to apprehend Kony."

In discussing the arrest warrant for Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda, who is making millions of dollars from minerals while committing crimes and operating with impunity, he says it is a tremendously important case. "If in fact you can start with one person, arrest one of them, one of the worst violators of human rights in eastern Congo, one of the worst pillagers of Congolese resources, then you are making a dent, you are making a first step toward reversing the centuries-long slide that the eastern Congolese people have been embroiled in, not as a result of their own actions, but as a result of outsiders," he says.

"I feel like taking a stand on accountability for one actor can have a catalytic effect for many other things," he says.

Prendergast says there is a gap in the international infrastructure in bringing criminals to justice, and that is lack of an international police force. "It is befuddling to me that ten years into the existence of this Court, we don’t have that. It is remarkable, in fact, and speaks volumes about the the disfunctionality of international institutions that are established on the basis of grand principles and then fall completely short in practice," he says.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):

Interview Transcript

Till Papenfuss (TP): I am here today with John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, long-time human rights activist, and author of The Enough Moment. Thank you for joining the Global Observatory today.

John Prendergast (JP): Thanks for having me.

TP: Mr. Prendergast, you just participated in a discussion here at IPI with outgoing International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo on the challenges of enforcing arrest warrants. In your opinion, what will it take for the ICC and states to cooperate more effectively in securing the arrest of indicted war criminals?

JP: Well right now, as you know, there is no international police force to automatically execute the arrest warrants of the ICC. So there is no automaticity built into the international system to actually act upon anything that the ICC does. So that requires then for a more concerted effort by state parties and supporters of the International Criminal Court to craft individual arrest or apprehension strategies around every arrest warrant that is issued.

It is befuddling to me that ten years into the existence of this Court, we don’t have that. It is remarkable, in fact, and speaks volumes about the disfunctionality of international institutions that are established on the basis of grand principles and then just completely fall short in practice. What we have is a highly functioning, highly motivated legal process based in The Hague, and then states that have competing or no interest in creating some kind of a structure to actually implement the legal decisions that are made by an organization that was created by these very same states that aren’t anything to enforce them. I feel that the urgent next step in the international architecture is to build that step of creating and crafting strategies around individual apprehensions.

TP: In maybe a slightly more hopeful vein, your organization, the Enough Project, has stated in a recent report that there currently is a "golden opportunity" to apprehend Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda. What would the significance be of taking Ntaganda out of the equation for the eastern DRC, and what role should the ICC play in this process?

JP: I want to start the answer by remembering the millions of people who have died in eastern Congo in this last dozen years of conflict as a result of warlords like Bosco who run around making millions of dollars off the minerals that are stripped out of that country and are operating, and have operated, in total impunity.

That is why that is such a tremendously important case. If, in fact, you can start with one person, arrest one of them, one of the worst violators of human rights in eastern Congo, one of the worst pillagers of Congolese resources, then you are making a dent, you are making a first step toward reversing the centuries-long slide that the eastern Congolese people have been embroiled in, not as a result of their own actions, but as a result of outsiders.

I feel like taking a stand on accountability for one actor can have a catalytic effect for many other things. And you see the demand for his arrest has already catalyzed change in eastern Congo. This whole parallel administration that Bosco and his cronies had developed in eastern Congo in order to smuggle all the minerals out of there to Rwanda and Uganda is now at risk. It’s crumbled, and now they have had to reorganize, they’re on the run militarily. The big question now is, what is Rwanda going to do? Will Rwanda protect Bosco, because of the interests that Bosco protected for Rwanda for many years? What is the quid pro quo there? Will the agreements that were brokered earlier between Rwanda and the Congo hold, or will we go back to a state of open warfare in eastern Congo?

Literally millions of lives hang in the balance of these questions. It all started because someone said, ‘Wait a second, this guy shouldn’t be allowed'—the Terminator as he is called—'Bosco Ntaganda shouldn’t be allowed to just run around killing, raping, and pillaging without any kind of accountability.’ So that is what you get. When you start hitting the hornet's nest, some things are going to change, and the international community needs to be ready to help the Congolese government and the Congolese people deal with the changes that are occurring right now today in the eastern Congo, as we speak.

TP: Speaking of cases that could serve as a catalyst and people speaking up about the need to do something about them. Invisible Children, which focuses on the plight of LRA-affected communities in Uganda and Central Africa, is one of your partners. As an organization that makes extensive use of the Internet and new media itself, what can you learn from the Kony 2012 campaign? And maybe in a more reflective vein, despite its unprecedented reach, do you believe this campaign will have a lasting effect—did the message get through?

JP: I think that the most important outcome of this quite extraordinary phenomenon that occurred in response to the video released a couple of months ago is that it uncovers a silent majority, a clear subset of publics in the United States and other countries that are interested enough to watch a 29-minute video that is not by a famous musician or a movie star. And it is a 29-minute video that talks about a place halfway around for most people, a place they will never go, people they never met. And it spurred tens of millions of those people to sign petitions and then hundreds of thousands of them to take fairly significant follow-up actions in support of the crafting of a strategy to bring an end to the horrific crimes that Joseph Kony and the LRA have committed.

That’s what most politicians take away from it. That’s the essential point that needs to be understood is that this has had a political impact. That now you have the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives and the Obama Administration all united much more clearly and openly to enhance their efforts to support the African nations, which are undertaking the effort to try to apprehend Kony.

My view is very strongly positive about the campaign so far. The key now is, will the campaign be able to follow up with... and you don’t need a hundred million people to change something, you need a small percentage of that that stay committed. And political actors who face elections know this. So whatever the intelligentsia or the academics want to say about it, it doesn’t really matter because it is actually impacting in real time the political process and increasing the political will to do something. So the key is, what are they going to do?

There aren’t enough troops out there searching for Kony. They don’t have the right transport. There aren’t enough troops out there that are defending populations from reprisal attacks. The intelligence networks aren’t built up strongly enough. And they don’t have access to the areas where Kony and some of the top lieutenants are hiding. So there are significant gaps right now on the program. So if the next stage of the campaign can effectively address those missing ingredients of a successful strategy, if they can successfully address those, then we might have a successful apprehension, which will, in my view, bring an end to the LRA and its atrocities.

That would be an incredible testimony, not only to the work that the African states that have been on the ground working to try to bring an end to this for many years, but also a testimony to the idea that people around the world can organize on the basis of a principle, on the basis of a cause, and actually help make an impact somewhere around the world.

TP: Talking about advocacy strategies, and you have already mentioned the draw that stars and celebrities can have. And I would be curious, because a lot of the Enough Project advocacy to inform policy making and the general public about ways to prevent or stop the commission of crimes against humanity and genocide in fact involves working with celebrities. What specifically do celebrities bring to the table in supporting your campaigns? Is all media good media, or do you sometimes question whether bringing on board celebrities trivializes the cause?

JP: Just like governments are different, NGOs are different, celebrities are different. If you have a serious person who cares deeply about these issues and takes the time to go to the countries and learn about it and deepen their knowledge, that they can make a tremendous contribution, particularly in recruiting people to the cause. I mean that is really what these people are, they are master recruiters for the cause. Whether it is human trafficking, child slavery, or child soldierdom, or genocide, or whatever the cause is, environmental degradation, celebrities, when deployed effectively and when they take the time to learn about the issues, they can get tens or hundreds of thousands of new eyes on the issue that otherwise wouldn’t be there. And many of those people stay engaged.

So at this point in human history, there is no other catalyst that I see, that most people who deal with causes see, that can bring about the spikes in citizen interest as a celebrity who is deeply committed, who is willing to go there. The kind of people we have worked with like George Clooney and Don Cheadle, and Ryan Gosling, and Angelina Jolie, Ashley Judd, people that have spent a lot of time in the field in Africa; Ben Affleck committed to learning about why these things happen and then come back and try to educate people. I just simply don’t see what could possibly be wrong with that.

Just because they have a career that makes them live in a fishbowl, it’s actually the fishbowl that they want to use to reflect the light away from them onto the causes that they care about, and I think that is an admirable thing. And, I just don’t know why again there is so much criticism of it. Because, certainly, it has an impact, a tremendous impact, on political processes and political will to do something about these deep important issues.

TP: Finally, do you feel that through the work of organizations like yours that are so able harness international attention on these issues, also the creation and success of the ICC, and global awareness through the use of social media, do we now have a better chance to prevent the recurrence of genocide and the commission of crimes against humanity in Africa and beyond?

JP: I believe we do. I believe that this confluence of factors, particularly undergirded by an increased political will to prevent genocide, to address some of these worst human rights crimes that are continuing to be committed around the world. I think the fact that more eyes can be brought, more attention can be brought to a particular issue overnight. In the case of the Syrian people in the street, in the case of the Egyptians in the street, ten, fifteen years ago, if there had been demonstrations like that, they would have been brutally crushed and we would have never heard from those people again, they would have all been killed.

But now with the twittering and the social media phenomenon and quickly catalyzing international media interest, which then quickly catalyzes governmental interest, it made it impossible for these governments to do what they normally would have done, which is massive human rights crimes. Certainly the loss of life in Syria is unacceptable, but I fear, shudder to think about what it would have been like had there not been the kind of international attention garnered on behalf of this.

Same thing in Darfur, had there not been an international effort around the genocide in Darfur, even though it didn’t stop the conflict there, it certainly led the government of Sudan to be unable to use its favorite war tactic, which is starvation. They were harshly condemned and pressed very hard from countries all over the world to allow the international agencies to go into Darfur and provide assistance. They didn’t ten years earlier in South Sudan, and you saw two-and-a-quarter million people die in that war. Well two-and-a-quarter million people didn’t die in Darfur, because they allowed the assistance to go in, because of the international action.

My point is that the attention that all of these efforts brought to bear and the political will, which continues to slowly and steadily increase to try to respond to atrocities and even, in some cases, prevent them. The case of Libya being the shining star of attention suddenly being galvanized on a particular place around the world, the political will catalyzing in order to act in defense of the people in eastern Libya who were at risk of a genocide in that area. Yes, things happened after that–regime change and all the rest of it, which makes people critical of the whole 'responsibility to protect' concept. But that concept and the effort to try to protect civilians and prevent some of these terrible human rights crimes is a lot stronger today than it has ever been in human history.

And as long as international NGOs, the ICC, and organizations and entities that care about these kinds of issues continue to work on behalf of the survivors of these human rights crimes, and as along as governments are susceptible to political pressures to do something, I think we are going to continue to march forward in the international effort to try to bring an end to the worst of the human rights abuses and human rights crimes in the world today.

TP: Mr. Prendergast. Thank you very much for this interview

JP: Thank you for having me.

Photo credit: The Enough Project/Jeff Trussell



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