Prendergast brings humanitarian perspective

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Photo by Robert Peck.

Not everybody has had the chance to team up with Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan and George Clooney at the same time, but John Prendergast has.

Prendergast, a human rights author and activist, spoke to an audience of more than 40 students at a Trumbull College Master’s Tea Monday afternoon. The discussion, which lasted for 90 minutes, ranged from problems plaguing global aid in today’s interconnected world to the viability and effectiveness of humanitarian cultural movements.

Prendergast said the idea for his talk came from a conversation he had on an airplane with his “partner in crime,” George Clooney. He and Clooney were discussing issues affecting human rights, he said, and Clooney suggested he give a lecture about it.

He began the Master’s Tea by posing a question to the audience: with all the good intentions that the U.S. government has with regards to human rights, why do countries in conflicts that receive U.S. aid so frequently deteriorate into catastrophe?

“Genocide prevention, peacemaking, environmental protection — these seem like the mantra in every speech of every politician,” Prendergast said. “What goes wrong? Why are these good intentions literally and figuratively paving the way to hell in these places?”

Prendergast went on to explain that there are a number of reasons that human rights abuses are not properly addressed, including lack of imagination, resource constraints and unskilled personnel. Each of these, he said, can crush good intentions or policies on its own.

Over the course of the talk, two main issues that Prendergast focused on were poor policy-making and bureaucratic resistance.

“The inertia that you encounter once you enter institutions like the United Nations and the U.S. government is profound,” Prendergrast said. “[It is] bone-crushing, and political will is the missing ingredient.”

Prendergast proceeded to describe three international situations that showed poor policy decisions — child abduction in Uganda, genocide in Darfur and mass suffering in the Congo. All could have been improved by dealing with root causes of the conflict instead of merely “putting Band-Aids on the problem,” he said.

But then he listed three cases of human rights abuses where the appropriate policies helped resolve seemingly endless conflict, including the creation of South Sudan, wars fought over blood diamonds and the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, in which Prendergast helped to negotiate a ceasefire. In each of these, he said that the success was due to choosing the right policy, whether it was the creation of a special counsel or the harnessing of consumer pressure in the U.S. For example, Prendergast explained that consumer pressure on diamond vendors for “clean” diamonds helped to end the blood diamond trade.

The focus of the talk shifted when Brian Price GRD ’13 asked Prendergast about the nature of campaigns like Save Darfur, which Price said can come to be more of a cultural phenomenon that overshadows the structural and policy issues at hand. Prendergast disagreed and said that although proponents of these movements may not be as informed as advocates and decision makers, they serve an important purpose.

“We have to understand that there are different roles that everyone plays,” Prendergast said. “The people wearing their T-shirts — their job is to generate the political will.”

Because the question and answer session ran longer than anticipated, about half the audience left before the event ended. Danijela Bule ’14, who stayed for the entire time, said she decided to come at the suggestion of her dean.

Bule said she only knew a little bit about Prendergast’s work before coming to the Master’s Tea, but she found his talk to be very impressive.

“I didn’t know he was such a big deal but apparently he’s a big-shot in this activist world,” Bule said. “I want to ask him questions about my own work that I want to do.”

Prendergrast, 48, is still active in pushing the U.S. government to focus on human rights abuses abroad, and has met with President Obama five times since his inauguration to lobby for effective humanitarian policies. He served as director for African affairs at the National Security Council, co-founded the Enough Project — a nonprofit that aims to end genocide and crimes against humanity — and has authored or co-authored ten books.

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