The ongoing conflict in eastern Congo is at a significant turning point, and the absence of a credible international peace process may lead to the exacerbation of a devastating war that has already claimed over 5 million lives since 1996. To date, regionally mediated and hasty backroom talks have only focused on the short-term security issues that bypass the underlying and multifaceted economic and political drivers of this bloody conflict.
The overall fragility of the Congolese state is deeply rooted in a history of 150 years of exploitation, which shredded the foundational fibers of this society and continues to hinder progress toward sustainable development.
A snapshot of the 1996–2003 period of this bloodstained timeline provides a lens into Congo’s two wars, which concretized a system of armed rebel groups maintaining control over various regions of the country, with a particular concentration in the eastern areas. The ostensible peace treaty in 2002 solidified the numerous forces into one national army called the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC), which is, in actuality, one of the most predatory, corrupt, ineffective and unstable institutions in Congo today. In spite of this integrated, so-called army, there are still currently over 20 armed militias dispersed throughout the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A number of different reports, including the U.N. Group of Experts Report, have investigated the direct relations between armed militias, natural resources, the weapons trade and attacks on civilians. The different rebel groups have substantially elevated the war in eastern Congo and intensified the level of sexual violence and attacks on civilians, 2 million of whom have been displaced. These reports further examine the links between the escalation of violence and the relationship between armed militias and the trade in conflict minerals in eastern Congo. For example, a new armed militia called the M23, which has begun to attract a small amount of international attention, took unlawful control of eastern Congo’s richest mining areas prior to its mutiny from the national army and subsequently created a multimillion dollar minerals trafficking network.
Through this illicit trade, members of this rebel group make up to $15,000 per week by smuggling minerals into Rwanda and Uganda and use the profits to finance the current fighting in the northern and southern Kivu provinces of eastern Congo. These smuggled minerals then travel out of Africa into smelting companies in Asian countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, China and India. In these smelting and mineral refining operations, the minerals from Congo get mixed with other minerals from around the world and become somewhat untraceable. In the last step of this unclean supply chain, the conflict minerals travel all over the world and house themselves into our favorite electronics products, like our cellphones, laptops and cameras.
In order to address the conflict minerals trade’s role as a key economic driver of this complicated conflict, a rapidly growing coalition of government actors, NGOS, multinational corporations, interfaith and Congolese diaspora groups, activists and students have been working to promote an international “Conflict
Free Minerals Movement” for blood-free electronics products. The Enough Project, a venerable human rights nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., has spearheaded an international student movement called the “Conflict Free Campus Initiative,” which harnesses the power of student leadership and activism in order to bring about change and increased peace in eastern Congo.
Although the situation in eastern Congo is dire, as consumers and students, we have the immense potential and leverage to voice our demand for conflict-free electronics products from Congo. By urging university officials and stakeholders, both of whom are influential spokespersons and major purchasers of electronics, to commit to measures that pressure electronics companies to responsibly invest in Congo’s minerals sector, we can help bring about change.
As of last week, CFCI at UC Berkeley, in partnership with the ASUC Senate, joined over 100 universities to unanimously pass SB 16, a “Bill in Support of a Conflict Free Campus.” This is the first step of many that CFCI at Berkeley will take to move toward symbolically pressuring electronics corporations to clean up their supply chains. Corporations are finding it increasingly difficult to ignore our calls for real, effective action.
This rising global social movement aims to reduce the volume of the economic fuel that powers havoc-wreaking armed militias throughout Congo’s mineral rich provinces, in order to provide a durable framework for open and comprehensive peace talks. The peaceful, legal and transparent development of Congo’s natural resource sector and the overall stability of the Great Lakes Region of Africa are all contingent on this durable, sustainable peace process. Students like us have the potential to take our direct complicity in this corrupt supply chain and turn it around into a positive direction. The time is now.
Roxanne Rahnama is a sophomore at UC Berkeley.
Contact the opinion desk at [email protected]