Wednesday, May 16, 2012

What’s a girl to do for human rights?

More pre-trip ramblings. Countdown: 2 days.

As I said in my first post, I was introduced to conflict in Sudan in middle school through the Save Darfur campaign. As an 8th grader, I wasn’t exactly an expert on genocide intervention, and I never really considered the effects my actions would actually have on people suffering in Darfur. From what I understood, the situation was simple—terrible things were happening in the region and people in the US needed to know about them. I bought t-shirts, attended rallies, and planned events at my high school. What happened after I raised awareness was out of my hands, and all I cared about was making sure that people did something.

Fast forward to 2012—The Save Darfur Coalition has a new name, and new tragedies are unfolding in Sudan. The world stood idly by for years as the genocide in Darfur ran its course and hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered. What effect did all of those t-shirts actually have? And what else can a high school or college student do for human rights? 

I had the privilege of going to the White House last month with other students for the rollout of President Obama’s Atrocities Prevention Board (APB). The APB is a long-awaited policy achievement and the result of recommendations from the 2008 Genocide Prevention Taskforce. The board, chaired by Samantha Power, brings together experts from 11 different government agencies to meet monthly on institutionalizing atrocity prevention and response policy. It’s a huge achievement and represents the type of high-level human rights policy that I never even attempted to understand in high school.

I asked myself during the day’s events at the White House if the APB was the magic wand we’ve been searching for to prevent genocides around the world. It became clear pretty quickly though that the APB was no panacea, and that it was just one of many moving parts in the bureaucracy that needed to work effectively for a proper response to take place.

Samantha Power introducing the Atrocities Prevention Board
One of the aspects of the board’s presentation that I found fascinating though was its insistence that activists continue putting pressure on the government to act. David Pressman, Assistant Secretary for Policy Development at the Department of Homeland Security and a member of the APB, said in his introduction, “We’re all here because of the work that all of you have done in your communities and at the grassroots.” Power echoed the same sentiments and added that the APB was created to make sure that calls for action on human rights wouldn’t get lost in the bureaucracy of government. It was created because Americans pressured their government to do something about human rights violations around the world.

I’m not naïve enough to think that it was my work in high school (or anyone's) that spurred the creation of the APB, but I do believe that public pressure and awareness have an important place in atrocities prevention. It was a bit eerie hearing Ben Keesey, the CEO of Invisible Children, also speak at the White House—the same day that President Obama reaffirmed his commitment to US involvement in tracking the LRA in Uganda. When an idea goes viral—be it Kony 2012 or the push for conflict-free electronics (shameless plug), people pay attention. Awareness can spark change at the highest levels, and the challenge lies in crafting responsible narratives and effective campaigns. So in the end, even a random person holding an event at their university is a part of the solution, because they're a crucial actor in mounting pressure to prioritize human rights. As long as we're relentless, we'll keep getting heard.

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