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Prendergast, McGovern Praise Student Activism

Child Soldiers in World of Pain Due to Social Injustice

John Prendergast, Jim McGovern, Gordon Halm
Activist John Prendergast addresses a packed auditorium as U.S. Rep. James McGovern and Gordon Halm, grad student in Peace and Conflict Studies, listen.

By Sandra Seitz

The world’s problems will not get better on their own, but people who care can make a real difference.
That was the message delivered by speakers at the KONY 2012 Project, a recent campus event featuring international human-rights activist John Prendergast, UMass Lowell’s 2012 Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies. Prendergast spoke on a panel with U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, senior minority whip in the House, and Gordon Halm, graduate student in the Peace and Conflict Studies program.
“When someone asks me, ‘Why should we care about what happens in the middle of Africa?’ I say, ‘Because you’re a human being,’ ” said McGovern. “Nothing will change if people are indifferent.”

Students who have banded together to end the use of child soldiers in central Africa are hardly indifferent. Within the last few years, student movements have forced world attention on the issue and prompted government action to end the power of the marauding rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). KONY 2012 is the campaign to bring warlord Joseph Kony, commander of the rebel LRA, to justice in international criminal court.

Student Effort Inspires

“The work of these students is inspiring,” said McGovern, who has taken a leadership role on matters of social justice and human rights in Congress. He described how just three college students began the group Invisible Children, using social media to spark action and producing the KONY 2012 video, which features Prendergast and has been viewed by more than 80 million people.
“When high school students took up the cause across the country, hundreds showed up in Congressional offices in 2009 for a day of lobbying,” said McGovern. “They were passionate, articulate and well-prepared.” 

As a result, McGovern co-introduced, with then-U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which passed with bipartisan support in one year, a legislative speed “that is unheard of – like greased lightning,” he said. 

On campus, Students Against Human Trafficking has spearheaded the raising of awareness about abuse of children for commercial and military purposes, through sponsored events and invited speakers. 

Nearly 90 high school students from the Greater Lowell Technical High School attended the event on campus, joining a packed auditorium. The students have studied issues of social justice and read an autobiography of a former child soldier. The UMass Lowell event was sponsored by the Greeley Endowment for Peace Studies, the Peace and Conflict Studies Institute (PACSI) and the Center for Arts and Ideas.

“Your actions are making a difference,” said Prendergast, pointing to progress over the past decade. The LRA’s power has diminished, as its forces have been reduced to a few hundred. Ten years ago, more than 2 million people were displaced by LRA atrocities – a number that has dropped into the hundreds of thousands. 

“There has to be continued support for people to rebuild their lives and restore their devastated communities. Turning our backs is self-defeating,” Prendergast said. He described the recent history of Afghanistan and Somalia, where U.S. withdrawal from conflicts, and public disinterest in the resulting chaos, gave room for Osama bin Laden to build up al Qaeda. 

Gordon Halm, who grew up in Ghana and survived the war in Liberia, spoke of the harsh realities for child soldiers and their communities.

“In northern Uganda, Joseph Kony takes innocent children, gives them guns and drugs and instructs them to kill, kill, kill – in most cases, starting with their own parents,” he said. “I have gone through the civil war in Liberia. I have seen children with guns. They kill everything that moves.

“I hope that we all take on the effort to bring peace,” said Halm. “Peace is not only the absence of conflict. It is also a state of well-being of humankind. It is not enough to talk about peace. We have to believe it is possible. We have to work at it.”

Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies

As the 2012 Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies, Prendergast is the fifth distinguished advocate for peace to visit the campus, engaging student, faculty and community groups about peace and justice issues. Last year’s Greeley Scholar for Peace Studies, Leymah Gbowee, went on to win the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.
Prendergast, after appearing on campus in April, returned for the panel presentation and a series of discussions with small groups of students. Over several days, he attended classes  in social science courses, such as the Politics of Repression and Dissent, Democracy and Development and the Sociology of War and Peace.

Prendergast has worked for the Clinton White House, the State Department, members of Congress, the National Intelligence Council, UNICEF, Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and the U.S. Institute of Peace. He is the author or co-author of 10 books including “Unlikely Brothers,” a dual memoir co-authored with his first little brother in the Big Brother program.