“As we continue to strive towards a world that acknowledges the rights of all human beings, the Vienna Declaration and Plan of Action, adopted at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna in 1993, still sets the agenda for much of our work. The Declaration, which led to historic advances in the promotion and protection of human rights, is the most significant overarching human rights document produced in the past 40 years.” – UN Human Rights Chief, Navi Pillay
In the 20 years since the Human Rights conference of 1993, there have been many efforts and achievements to fulfill what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calls “our collective responsibility to promote and protect the rights and dignity of all people everywhere.”
One achievement worth examining is a revolutionary advocacy model that campaigns for peace in Congo, Falling Whistles, founded in 2008 by Sean Carasso. The mission of this advocacy organization is to demand an “end to the deadliest war of our time,” which East Africa Bureau Chief for the New York Times, Jeffrey Gentleman called in 2012, “One of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II, with more than 5 million dead.”
Why and how Congo has become a haven of civil unrest, sexual violence, children soldiers, prisoners of war, and systemic execution cannot be explained in a short article, nor do I contend to have the expertise to do so. (Though I suggest readers familiarize themselves with the classic anti-colonial masterpieces Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost and Howard W. French’s A Continent for the Taking to start, and then ask questions about the creation of their favorite electronic devices.
Many Americans may be daunted by the extreme violence that stretches centuries and threatens the mundane comforts of our lives. However, Carasso’s advocacy model in Falling Whistles relies on grassroots ideas, and the notion that “change doesn’t come in a dramatic leap, but rather in the accumulation of small steps, day after day against oppression.” And hashtags, whistles, an old-fashioned entrepreneurial model, and all-night dance parties.
So what makes the Falling Whistles advocacy campaign so different? Says Carasso, “Sometimes it’s a blessing to be naïve and stupid enough to not know what you can’t do. Then you simply go out and do what needs to be done. There’s no single sustainable advocacy model. We started out as a bunch of punk kids hitchhiking and riding bikes across the country, with no idea of how to build a coalition.”
Rather than aligning themselves with wealthy donors or special interest groups, Falling Whistles creates the majority of its revenue through sales to the public. The group sells whistles as a symbol, ranging in price from $38 to $58 that whistleblowers for peace can wear around their necks. “This way, we fund projects on our terms, and can respond to the situation on our time line.”
Back in 2008, when Carasso first visited Congo after quitting his job as a personal assistant to someone who identifies as a 1%-er, he met his now partner, Sekombi who Carasso describes as a “brilliant businessman and freedom fighter, bringing art, music and media to youth who’ve grown up in a war zone, through the fastest growing radio station in Eastern Congo.” Sekombi is one of several Congolese visionaries working to rebuild their community that the organization has invested in.
Early on, the group secured its own human rights lawyer to work with American and international governments to promote Congolese justice, and began creating a coalition of worldwide activists, entrepreneurs and artists to fund and train Congolese brands and businesses.
Over the past five years, those advocacy efforts have been supported by a coalition of over 100,000 whistleblowers. Advocacy demands, reinforced by innovative petitioning, have included the appointment of special envoys and the demobilization of rebel groups through funding cuts. “In 2011, Congolese voters were given the power to monitor their own elections with SMS and radio technology. In 2013, we celebrated the appointments of two Special Envoys from the US and the UN with mandates to end the war.“
Around this time last year, Falling Whistles gained media notoriety when it launched a Twitter campaign to flood the UN, the US State Department, and high levels of government with over 30 thousand direct tweets to #StopM23. A group of rebels called M23 had invaded Goma, a regional capital in eastern DRC, where Sekombi has built his radio station, which was supposed to be protected by UN Peacekeepers.
Within 48 hours, Falling Whistles and the #StopM23 tweet-for-change campaign became world news (though not all of it sang the group’s praises). Over the next few weeks, Congress held emergency hearings, President Obama made a direct call to President Kagame of Rwanda, and M23 retreated from Goma.
Was all of this from whistles sales and tweeting for change? It’s hard to say, and the nonprofit spearheaded by Carasso came under attack for overestimating the power of its campaign in the takedown of M23 and the suspension of aid to the Rwandan government.
This year, when M23 was completely defeated by the Congolese Army and UN Peacekeepers, Carasso drew criticism from some media outlets that questioned the efficacy of the campaign in the actual takedown of M23, and particularly the credibility of the claim that the nonprofit organization played a role in demobilizing the insurgency.
Meanwhile, the city of Goma celebrated last year’s retreat of M23 with an all-night dance party organized by Sekombi and his band of freedom fighting artists. This year on December 10, following M23’s complete removal from the battlefield, Sekombi is hosting another such celebration. Cities from Seoul to Sydney, Washington, Los Angeles, Berlin, Stockholm, London, Atlanta, New York, and others will follow suit in an act of solidarity.
The worldwide party continues with a petition that seeks to end impunity in Congo with the demobilization of all rebel forces, public trials so victims can see injustice punished, free and fair elections, and steps toward conflict free products, especially within the electronic mining sector. And though Carasso has been called a whistle-selling hipster guilty of promoting narcissistic US clicktivism his entrepreneurial model of human rights advocacy is worth examining, especially in a culture that uses social media as the latest tool for #selfie promotion.
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the horrific atrocities surrounding the Congolese conflict. But I will take a moment to acknowledge the collective power that comes with looking outside of yourself.
What mark will organizations like Falling Whistles leave on the millennial crusade for human rights? It’s hard to say. I’m not sure how one can measure the impact “brands” for a “cause” can have on such longstanding human rights issues.
But again, it’s something worth thinking about as we move towards creating new types of advocacy models. Carasso wants his supporters to understand that their work “is not about charity and it’s not about pity. It’s about global solidarity, and building this shoulder to shoulder.”
For more information on the Falling Whistles Human Rights Day worldwide celebration events, in 20 cities and five continents across the world, click here.