An interview with John Prendergast

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Since winning freedom in 1776 and beginning the American journey under our Constitution in 1789, the United States has been a beacon for individual rights to life and liberty. A nation as complex as ours has many heroes, many struggles and shining examples of humanity, modernity and compassion. From the men and women who serve across the globe wearing the uniform of our Armed Forces, to those in Clandestine service within the Intelligence apparatus, and Americans who give their heart and souls through humanitarian work, America is strengthened by selfless heroes.

John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project at the Center for American Progress, embodies the very best of the American conscience. Mr. Prendergast has served on the National Security Council, been a Special Advisor to the State Department, and worked for the U.S. Congress and the United Nations.

Has the human rights community made significant enough progress not only in awareness, but participatory advocacy, with regard to Sudan and Congo?

One of the most amazing things I’ve been witness to over these past five years has been the growth of participatory advocacy throughout the U.S. on behalf of the victims and survivors of the two deadliest wars in the world, Sudan and Congo. The advocacy has been wide and deep, transcending race, gender and political affiliation. Faith communities have been crucial in the development of this active constituency. Students especially have been central to generating real political will. Even though the wars haven’t ended yet, the political will is being generated to address two unlikely candidates for U.S. prioritization in the jungles of Central Africa and the desert and savannah of Northeast Africa.

Now that the elections have passed, what should be the primary thrust of US policy towards the Sudan referenda in January 2011?

The U.S. needs to make clear that there will be severe consequences facing any party that undermines the referendum process and its result. The stakes are massive: if the referendum is manipulated or undermined, southern Sudanese will go back to war. Plain and simple. So it is up to the U.S., China and other countries that want peace in Sudan for whatever reasons to ensure that the ruling National Congress Party doesn’t try to obstruct the referendum.

When confronted with the truth of genocide and crimes against humanity, do you find that people embrace the moral imperative of ending genocide – or are people more likely to be squeamish?

The biggest road block to action on genocide and other human rights crimes is ignorance. Most people just don’t know that such things are happening, and often if they have a vague idea they are happening there is a feeling that there is nothing that can be done to stop these crimes. So our opponents are ignorance and hopelessness. But the reality is that many countries that ten or fifteen years ago were ripped apart by conflict are now at peace. Look at Liberia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Angola, Mozambique, Burundi and many others. Wars can be resolved. Human rights atrocities can be stopped. We just have to apply the right policies.

How do you define heroism?

The new book Don Cheadle and I are writing focuses a lot on Samantha Power’s concept of “upstanders,” people who for whatever reason rise to the challenge of a particularly pressing issue and respond in a distinctive, meaningful way. Don and I profile many such upstanders, some from Africa, some who are activists around the U.S., some who are celebrities who are standing up for the causes they believe in. These are modern-day heroes, and their stories will be very inspiring to many.

What is courage?

I see courage everywhere I go in Africa. Fearless human rights activists in Darfur. Women peace advocates in eastern Congo. Former child soldiers in Northern Uganda who now are helping other former child soldiers return to civilian life. These folks are fighting injustice and promoting peace in some of the most difficult places in the world, and I am in awe of their spirit.

Elizabeth Blackney is best known as a media & communications strategist, political emissary, confidante and commentator. She served as Political Director for BlogTalkRadio’s 2008 election coverage, and as a writer for the AOL News Hot Seat. Blackney authored Sex, Lies & Politricks.