Archive for the activism Category

Congo Week 2009 in Japan

Posted in activism, Congo, DRC, Japan, media coverage with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 15 November, 2009 by Virgil

(日本語でのコンゴウィーク情報はこちら

As noted in the previous post, the amount of media coverage and awareness of the conflict in the DRC in Japan remains at levels even lower than the meagre amounts in other Western countries. At Osaka University in Japan, we thought we would try to do something to begin to change this situation.

In April 2009, the Global Collaboration Center (GLOCOL) at Osaka University organised a photo exhibition and talk event on the conflict featuring the work of freelance photojournalist Takeshi Kuno (a regular visitor to the DRC) and my own research on stealth conflicts. This event attracted a relatively large number of participants from universities, NGOs and the general public (and not only from Osaka, but from elsewhere in Japan as well). Building on the interest generated here, a student advocacy group, which would later name itself ‘Eyes on the Congo’, was formed.

Photo exhibition

Photo exhibition, April 2009, Osaka University

This group helped plan and implement activities at Osaka University to coincide with Congo Week 2009 (18-24 October). Congo Week is an annual event organised by the US-based Friends of the Congo, and is a coordinated attempt to raise awareness of the conflict around the globe. It includes a variety of methods, from seminars and documentary screenings to demonstrations and a global ‘cell out’, in which people switch off their mobile phones at a certain time leaving a message for those who happen to call about the link between the minerals related to conflict in the DRC and the electronic devices that we use on a daily basis.

In 2008 groups from 35 countries participated in Congo Week – there was no participation from Japan. This year, Japan joined in. At Osaka University, a seminar was organised featuring a talk by Masako Yonekawa, formerly the head of the UNHCR Goma Office in eastern DRC. This was followed by two days of screening documentaries and holding mini-workshops with students. The student group (Eyes on the Congo) also organised a series of petitions: calling on media corporations to increase coverage of the DRC conflict; calling on politicians to raise the profile of the issue in Japan’s foreign policy; and calling on mobile phone companies to go public with the source of tantalum and other minerals used in their products.

All events attracted more participation than expected – not just more in the sense of the number of participants, but also in terms of the levels of active participation and interest. Some in attendance had some knowledge on the subject and came out with some hard-hitting questions. But the majority came with very little knowledge (many none at all) of the conflict and the problem. On the whole, these participants were genuinely surprised that such a massive conflict existed in unbeknownst to them. Some expressed shame at not knowing (no need for shame when the media on which they rely maintains a news blackout!). See some of the participants’ comments here.

DSC_0020

Workshop, Congo Week 2009, Osaka University

Furthermore, through these activities, a valuable relationship with two reporters from the Mainichi Newspaper (Ryuji Tanaka and Takashi Morita) was formed, both of whom attended the DRC-related events held at Osaka University. In spite of the newspaper’s failure to cover the conflict in the international page(s), these reporters were able to take advantage of an annual special the newspaper holds on children suffering in conflict zones to raise the profile of the conflict in the newspaper. This included a full two-page spread on the conflict, complete with a timeline of the conflict and a write-up on the link with conflict minerals. Never before has the conflict in the DRC attracted this much attention in the Japanese press. Unfortunately, this attention has yet to be reflected in changes in editorial policy on the international page(s) of the same newspaper.

Excuses from some of those representing the media on this media blackout are that there is a “lack of interest” in such a “distant” conflict among the people. The response to the events at Osaka University made it clear that the problem is certainly not a lack of interest among the people. It is less a case of lack of interest and more a case of lack of knowledge. If people know what is going on, interest will follow. One cannot be interested in something one knows nothing about. And the media have it backwards – coverage does not depend on interest (particularly in this case), the coverage helps generate the interest. And the media has no problem in pushing an issue incessantly to generate interest when it wants to.

As for the DRC conflict happening in such a “distant” place, it is interesting to note that the distance from Osaka to Goma in eastern DRC (11,609 km) is not all that different from the distance from Osaka to New York (11,113 km), a city that is the subject of heavy daily coverage in Japan (with Wall Street, cultural trends and Hideki Matsui’s every move being among this coverage). “Distance” is obviously a relative thing, and there is a need to be a little bit more honest about what distance means here – perhaps something closer to “difference”, in terms of skin colour, lifestyle and socioeconomic status.

Seminar, Congo Week 2009, Osaka University

Seminar, Congo Week 2009, Osaka University

The events held at Osaka University are, of course, just the beginning, and barely begin to scratch the surface of the wall of ignorance and silence over the world’s deadliest conflict in Japan and elsewhere. But at the same time, the results have been hopeful – both in terms of the interest generated at the event, and in getting a foot in the heavy door of the media. The events serve as an example of what can be done. Let’s hope the movement grows.

Advertisements

Gorillas and guerillas

Posted in activism, celebrities and advocacy, conflict, Congo, DRC, media coverage, natural resource exploitation, wildlife with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 21 January, 2009 by Virgil

In a previous post, I discussed how the apparent simplicity of a conflict can make the difference in whether it can attract and maintain attention or not – portraying a conflict as ‘chaos’ (instead of actually explaining its complexity) seems to be one sure way of telling people that they don’t need to direct their indignation towards the perpetrators or their sympathies towards the victims. A look at how outside observers see the animal victims of conflict (as opposed to the human victims) also helps us to see how important the ability to sympathize is in getting attention to a conflict.

 

In 2001 a lion in the Kabul zoo was left blinded and scarred by a hand grenade attack. The attacker’s cousin had been killed by the lion when he ventured into the lion’s den on a dare, and the grenade attack was an act of vengeance. The incident was covered in much of the Western press and sparked sympathy and donations to assist in the treatment for the lion. This was more than could be said for most of the human victims of the much broader conflict in Afghanistan. Conflict in that country up until the NATO attacks following September 11 was very much ‘off the radar’, with heavy fighting between the Taliban and Western-backed warlords routinely ignored by the media and other actors in much of the outside world.

 

But we can see the animal effect on sympathies perhaps most clearly in the case of the gorillas of the Great Lakes region, in the areas around the borders of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Uganda. With their numbers in decline, the continued existence of these mammals is in jeopardy, particularly because of conflict in the Great Lakes region. The extinction of a species of animals is clearly an issue of concern, but if we were to compare attention per capita, it is highly likely that we will find that the gorillas have managed to attract more attention (and almost certainly more sympathy) than the 6 million human victims of the conflict in the region.

 

Media corporations are quick to report the murder of gorillas (particularly babies) when it happens, and the victims will often be reported by name. But the same media corporations will more likely than not ignore massacres of humans in the DRC, babies or adult. How many of their names will ever be found in a newspaper?

 

While there has been a number of large-scale civil society campaigns organized in response to the more popular conflict in Darfur, there have very few in response to the much larger conflict in the DRC. But one campaign that was organized in response to this conflict, with some support from a number of Hollywood actors (including Leonardo di Caprio), was a campaign for “gorilla-friendly mobile phones”, referring to phones made without using the coltan mined in the DRC, which fuelled the conflict that threatened the gorillas. Admittedly, one campaign that was focused primarily on Belgium and Europe was a “no blood on my cell phone” campaign that aimed to draw attention to the link between coltan and the human victims of the conflict.

 

Often the message seems to be something along the lines of: ‘we will not be particularly concerned about the humans killed in Africa (especially while the details are not put in front of us – and we would rather they are not), but we care deeply about the lives of the gorillas, and will stand up to protect them’.

 

Here are perhaps some of the thoughts that run through people’s minds in the Western world (whether consciously or not), thoughts that make a situation like this possible:

 

The people:

Are part of a ‘chaotic’ conflict (it is messy and there is nothing that can be done)

Are part of a ‘tribal’ conflict (which sounds primitive, violent and nasty: people are killing each other, and therefore they are not innocent)

Are different from me (black and poor)

Are far away from my home (hordes of refugees will not be arriving on my doorstep)

Are messing up the freedom and independence that we gave them

Are blowing all the aid that we, in our benevolence, always give them

 

On the other hand,

 

The animals:

Are cute

Are intelligent (this is also one factor that seems to give whales so much more sympathy than cows)

Are helpless

Are innocent and are just caught up in the cruel violence of humans

 

Among the many factors behind the sympathy for gorillas (but not for humans), it is perhaps their perceived innocence that is the most significant. As long as the conflict between the humans is seen being ‘chaotic’ and ‘tribal’, innocent victims are difficult to be identified, and thus sympathy will be difficult to come by. Sympathy is usually generated when victims are able to be seen as belonging to an easily identifiable ‘ethnic’ group, not as individual humans belonging to different ‘sides’.

 

Perhaps the final irony is that there is a large shadow hanging over the conservation industry that ostensibly works to protect the gorillas. In a toxic mix of politics and profit, there appear to be links between policymakers, media corporations and the for-profit ‘conservation’ industry, in which the parties appear to be taking advantage of sympathy for the gorillas to achieve political goals and make money. Details can be found here.

 

Ben Affleck and Gimme Shelter

Posted in activism, celebrities and advocacy with tags , , , , , , on 21 December, 2008 by Virgil

Ben Affleck has recently directed a short film on behalf of the UNHCR called “Gimme Shelter” (using the Rolling Stones song of the same title). The film is part of a campaign by the UNHCR to generate 23 million US dollars to support their activities in response to the renewed violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

 

The conflict in the DRC is hands down the deadliest conflict of our times, and it almost defies imagination that a conflict of this magnitude has managed to attract so little attention and response over the past ten years – it is truly a stealth conflict of epic proportions. With violence rising again in the DRC, and the beleaguered city of Goma again on the verge of being overrun, now is as good a time as any for an attempt to raise some attention to its plight. While the mechanisms of humanitarian aid gathering and delivery often give rise to ‘carnivals of charity’ that seem to come and go depending on the whims of goodwill (based on what is the ‘fashionable’ crisis at the time, rather than what the actual humanitarian needs are), and although celebrity interventions can be controversial, this campaign should be applauded.

 

Roughly 95 percent of the 5.4 million people who have died because of conflict in the DRC have died not because of the bullets and the bombs, but because of preventable disease and starvation. Even if we cannot stop the fighting itself, we can at least do something to help the victims of the fighting. The figures above tell us that we have failed miserably in this regard – people died for lack of food, clean water, medicine and/or shelter that could have been made available. This is often the critical difference between stealth conflicts and chosen conflicts – the proportion of such nonviolent deaths never reaches such a high level in the case of chosen or fashionable conflicts. There cannot be a starker example than that in the DRC of the results of apathy.

 

UNHCR)

People fleeing fighting in Eastern DRC (Photo: UNHCR)

 

Celebrities have the potential to use their fame to draw attention (and donations) to humanitarian crises and thereby boost the response. The jury is still out, however, on whether celebrities can go beyond boosting attention to crises (that are already on the radar), and can actually succeed in drawing attention to crises that are not yet on the radar. Celebrities such as George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, for example, have chosen to focus much of their efforts on the conflict in Darfur, despite the fact that both have been to the DRC, and are aware that the scale of the problem in the DRC is far worse than that in Darfur. The website for the Education Partnership for Children of Conflict (co-founded by Angelina Jolie), for example, tells us that there 5,290,000 out-of-school children in the DRC, but the organization has chosen to focus its attention on Darfur (2,405,000 out-of-school children in Sudan), Iraq (540,000 out-of-school children), Haiti (572,000 out-of-school children) and New Orleans (victims of Hurricane Katrina).

 

This is not to take away from the work that these celebrities are doing or the positive effects of this work, and working to boost attention where attention already exists may well help the chances of success of this kind of advocacy (perhaps thereby making it the shrewd choice). But the real challenge lies in a case such as the crisis in the DRC, where, despite its unparalleled scale, attention is sorely lacking from every direction. Ben Affleck has chosen to focus his attention on this conflict, and has conducted a number of exploratory visits (before the latest round of renewed violence). Mr. Affleck’s choice should be applauded – it is a brave one, and there will surely be major challenges ahead in generating attention. Complexity has a way of quickly putting a damper on enthusiasm, however large the problem, and facing this obstacle will be a key challenge (Darfur’s rise to prominence has a lot to do with it being framed with an ostensibly simple storyline of genocide by ‘Arabs’ against ‘blacks’). The DRC is far from being an ‘easy sell’. 

 

The film Gimme Shelter focuses not on the politics, but on the humanitarian issues. This is a fair choice. It is not the job of the UNHCR to stop the conflict and remove the underlying root causes. They are there to help relieve the suffering caused. In any case, it is the complexity of the political background to the conflict (no the conflict is not ‘chaotic’, it is complex) that has been responsible for generating so much apathy to date.

 

The campaign hopes to raise 23 million US dollars. Let’s hope they raise ten times that amount.

%d bloggers like this: