STANDING WITH THE WOMEN AND GIRLS OF CONGO:
EMPOWERING THE PUBLIC TO CHANGE THE CALCULUS
OF THE DEADLY CONFLICT MINERALS TRADE
"We are looking for this movement to change consumer behavior – we want to help people realize just how powerful they are"
BACKGROUND ON CONFLICT MINERALS
You’ve probably never thought of your laptop computer as a byproduct of war – or, your cell phone, your i-pad or your flat screen TV, or any of the digital electronics that we and multiple industries use daily. But believe it or not, with very few exceptions, every purchase of electronics anywhere in the world is funding a deadly civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – a war in which, mafia-like rebel groups fight to the death for control over the land and mineral rights, i.e., for the right to mine “conflict minerals”.
Conflict minerals are a multi-million dollar business that funnels revenue directly into the pockets of the rebel groups that lay claim to the land rights. The rebels then use the funds to purchase arms and ammunition to propagate the conflict. The key minerals mined by the rebels are those that make our electronics work: tungsten, tantalum, tin and gold (see video clip above). The raw minerals are sold to middlemen, who then resell them to the electronics manufacturers worldwide from which we and multiple industries purchase all the electronics we use every day.
In the proper hands, the regulated sale of these minerals could make DRC one of the most prosperous countries in the world. But precious little of the mineral revenues accrue back to the people or to the country. Instead we see thousands of people forced from their homes living in displacement camps, little infrastructure and a government failing to protect its citizens.
The statistics are gruesome: it is the deadliest conflict since World War II; over 5.4 million people have died from war related causes. Tens of thousands of women and girls have been raped and brutalized. About 45,000 lives per month are claimed as a result of this ongoing tragedy.
THE CONTEXT OF CONGO: ONE OF THE WORST PLACE ON EARTH TO BE A WOMAN OR A GIRL
Eastern DRC has an incidence of sexual violence that is among the highest in the world and has earned a well placed reputation as one of the worst place on earth to be a woman or girl due to the the presence of armed groups.
The rebel militias are a constant terrifying presence in their patrol of the countryside; their modus operandi is to undermine the infrastructure of the country through the destruction of women and girls, who are the backbone of the family and of the communities.
Survivors report ferocious assaults on undefended villages, assaults that include wholesale gang rape and sexual mutilation, the execution of family members, the kidnapping of children (for use as sex slaves and child soldiers), and the incineration of their living quarters.
The victims are left permanently ravaged with bowel fistulas (leakages) of varying severity, for which the constant odor casts them as pariahs among their families and communities. Many find they have become impregnated by their attackers or that they have contracted HIV. They are left alone to grapple with their grief, shame, fear, disfigurement, illness and loneliness.
Medical facilities are few and far between; there is one Burn Center in all of eastern Congo, and the few hospitals available for the multiple surgeries required to repair the bowel fistulas have long waiting lists. Sometimes the surgeries are successful. But the emotional scars for these women, from the loss of their families, their livelihood , from the devastation of their bodies, and their lives, will last a lifetime.
RAISE HOPE FOR CONGO: BUILDING THE POLITICAL WILL TO HELP END THE VIOLENCE IN EASTERN CONGO
Raise Hope for Congo (RHFC), a campaign of the Enough Project, is working hard to reverse the momentum of the violence and destruction in the Congo. The campaign directive is to create a worldwide political and social environment that will change the equation of the conflict, ultimately, to protect the women and girls and to bring peace and security back to the region.
“Women and girls are the backbone of Congolese society and are the country’s best hope for any type of recovery” says Campaign Director, Sadia Hameed. “The goal of RHFC is to develop a broad grass roots base that will build support for permanent solutions to protect the women and girls.
RHFC started as a campaign to raise awareness, to put Congo on the radar,” she continues. Now we are moving to engage the public, to getting people involved around the world in a way that is simple, accessible and meaningful, so that our constituencies understand how they can really help people — not in the abstract– but on the ground. With RHFC, we want to offer the pubic a meaningful way to engage in an action plan that will leverage the voice of the actors who can influence decision makers.”
RHFC Campaign Manager, Sadia Hameed and Campaign Assistant, Chloe Christman, are a team to be reckoned with. With an extensive combined background in international human rights advocacy, they work with a powerful and wide ranging group of affiliates and partners, with whom they aim to collaborate to mobilize, educate, and empower the public to take action, to build the political will that will change the calculus of the conflict minerals trade. Their strategy is to galvanize a massive outreach effort that unites both the consumers of electronics products and the manufacturers, with the intent of crippling the supply chains now used by the rebel groups to fund their militias.
In a most fascinating and educational discussion for this writer, Action Now+Network spoke at length with Hameed and Christman about the movement they help lead with Raise Hope for Congo, and how it can ultimately save lives and pave the way for peace and security for the Congolese people.
WHAT IS THE MISSION OF RAISE HOPE FOR CONGO?
We want to educate and empower consumers and the general public – we want to help them recognize the connection between the electronics products they buy and the ongoing conflict in Congo. We want to help them understand that they can take meaningful action to shift their buying practices in a way that will help to end the violence on the ground in Congo.
WITH EVERYTHING THAT IS GOING ON IN THE WORLD TODAY – THE MIDDLE EAST IS EXPLODING – THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR PROGRAM IS ADVANCING – DO YOU THINK IT IS POSSIBLE TO GET THE ADMINISTRATION TO VIEW CONGO AS A HIGHER PRIORITY?
We are connected to the conflict whether we want to be or not: we want to make sure that Congo gets onto the agenda of policy makers; that they know and understand that until coordinated action is taken – until it is addressed, they will not affect the root actions and drivers of the conflict on the ground.
“we are connected to the conflict whether we want to be or not…”
If the political will existed, we wouldn’t need to do this type of work, we wouldn’t need to have an international campaign. There is a sense that Congo isn’t the priority it should be right now. But one thing is certain. Given the history of the Congo, given what we see happening there, there are few places that close to 6 million lives wouldn’t be a strong enough reason to make an area a priority. We want to create public accountability for what is happening there.
THERE ARE A NUMBER OF ORGANIZATIONS THAT HAVE LAUNCHED CAMPAIGNS THAT ADDRESS THE ATROCITIES TAKING PLACE IN THE CONGO. WHAT MAKES YOUR CONGO CAMPAIGN UNIQUE AMONG THIS CROWEDED GROUP?
The Enough Project is working to find solutions by focusing on targeted priorities at all levels: we have dedicated researchers based in Eastern Congo that deliver real time reports, that monitors human rights groups on the ground and that can tell us about the political and humanitarian landscape. We share field research and policy analysis – the intel chip – with other organizations as well.
“We are viewed as an ally, as a partner with (high level) decision makers”
The Enough Project also develops policy : we come up with a few targeted items we ask of the decision makers. Then we engage with companies and governments – and ultimately come up with a process that will deliver on the recommendations.
Part of what sets us apart from other organizations– many of which we work very closely with and partner with – is that that we, through the Enough Project, engage in advocacy that is at the insider level. We are viewed as an ally, a partner with (high level) decision makers.
Another thing that sets us apart is our campaign. We have a core group of grass roots activists that support the Raise Hope for Congo campaign around the world. They are the consumer voice that helps to galvanize the public. Through the Campaign, we support our research and advocacy efforts by empowering the public to use their voice in a way that will create meaningful change for Congo. We are working to grow a movement that will ensure U.S. decision-makers and companies take action.
YOUR CAMPAIGN HAS THREE ARMS WHICH ARE INTERRELATED: CONFLICT MINERALS, VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND 'MAKE YOUR CAMPUS CONFLICT FREE'. CAN YOU DESCRIBE HOW YOUR PROGRAM WORKS, AND SPECIFICALLY WHAT YOU ARE ADVOCATING WITHIN EACH OF THESE AREAS?
RHFC was launched through the framework of spotlighting rape as a weapon of war by the armed groups in the eastern Congo, which use this as a tactic to continue their terror campaigns (to control the land). By educating the public about these terror campaigns we can bring the conflict to a human level for people who are far removed from it.
“The women, after all they have been through, still believe that peace is possible”
The focus on the women and rape as a weapon of war is a way to connect the suffering with the resilience and hope of the women – the women, after all they have been through, still believe that peace is possible.
The key intersection between sexual violence and the war is the illicit trade in conflict minerals. So RHFC tackles the economic incentives that exist in the conflict mineral trade. These minerals are used in aerospace, medical supplies – they make computer screens light up, they make phones vibrate. They are at the core of technology and are central to business infrastructure and social engagement. They are a part of the world that is unlikely to disappear.
These minerals provide enormous revenue to the rebel groups controlling the mine sites. These armed rebel groups, like the FDLR, as well as criminal networks within the Congolese Army, use sexual violence as weapon of war.
“We must shift the incentives that exist in favor of conflict over peace…
we must shift the demand to certified conflict free minerals”
These armed groups use tactics that destroy the communities, and prevent them from rebuilding quickly. They go into the communities, rape and brutalize the women, recruit the men as forced labor, take the children to train as soldiers. The communities are devastated, destroyed. If we are committed to protecting the women, we must be able to shift the economic incentives that exist in favor of conflict over peace.
There is a way to shift the economic incentive. Foreign demand for Congolese minerals has unwittingly allowed this trade to thrive; if we were to shift demand to certified conflict free minerals, we could pressure business practices and economic policies to help regulate the trade, to help make them a source of benefit for communities. We want to create a system to make sure minerals are clean.
We need something like a Kimberley process for conflict minerals. The Kimberley process is an international certification process for diamonds that insures that they aren’t sourced from mines controlled by networks or people responsible for violence.
“There is a way to shift the economic incentive. Foreign demand for Congolese minerals
has unwittingly allowed this trade to thrive….
We need a process that is in principle, similar to Kimberley, but we have to have the participation and buy in from regional governments. Trade isn’t limited to the Congo. The minerals are smuggled into neighboring countries. We need the backing of the international community, we need to have industries that use these minerals commit to bringing about a process that is transparent. We hope that the US will help back that regional certification system, as that backing will give it longevity and legitimacy in the international community.
“Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act
passed last July in the U.S. is the first step toward western acceptance
of a ‘trace-audit-certify’ process”
Legislation on conflict minerals – Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act passed in the U.S. last July. This was a first step toward having a western country that uses minerals from various supply chains, state that an “I don’t know” policy (from the suppliers) is not good enough. The legislation begins a process of “trace-audit-certify”, so that manufacturers will know categorically where their minerals come from and will need to disclose that information on their website. It requires that if they have minerals coming from the Congo, they must ensure that they aren’t supporting the ongoing violence by purchasing from conflict mines.
Prior to passage of the Act, companies that used minerals only had to state that they had asked suppliers where the minerals came from, and that ended their responsibility.
HOW ARE ELECTRONICS MANUFACTURERS RESPONDING TO THIS EFFORT?
There is a certain pushback coming from industry – the burden is placed on the manufacturer to certify that their minerals are conflict free. But some industry groups are already looking into the process of setting a standard, so their consumers here don’t have to worry about their purchases coming from Congo.
“The U.S. must support a monitoring mechanism on the ground.”
The bottom line is that unless the U.S. helps to support a mechanism that monitors the extraction, transport, and sale of minerals, it is almost impossible for companies that source from Congo to say they are conflict free. Without this process, we will continue to see armed groups earning millions of dollars on the trade. While some companies might consider an embargo of Congo’s minerals so that they can claim “conflict-free”, without a certification system in place, there is still no way to ensure minerals are not smuggled out of the region and into our supply chains.
We do not want a boycott of Congo’s minerals, as it will neither end the illicit trade nor be a sustainable embargo, as eastern Congo has massive reserves of these minerals.
WOULD THE COMMUNITIES BE ENDANGERED IF A REGULATION EFFORT SHIFTED THE REVENUES FROM THE POCKETS OF THE REBELS?
Taking it a step further, to work out a process of certification on the ground that regulates and formalizes trade in a way that isn’t benefiting the armed groups– the response could be to retaliate on communities. An end to the illicit trade in these minerals won’t happen quietly.
But the bigger issue is that the violence isn’t going to stop in the absence of a certification process.
“A coordinated response from the international community is essential”
We need coordinated action from the international community. If the international community and economic policies and business practices promote sourcing minerals in a way that benefits the war criminals, then we continue to help fuel a conflict that has already claimed the lives of nearly six million people. This is unlikely to get better without coordinated action.
So do we do nothing and allow this to continue, or do we try to do something to stop the killing. Hopefully, policies and mechanisms can be set in place that address the cause of conflict so region can move back to peace.
One solution would be to have industry bodies that deal with minerals figure out how to have auditing on the ground. For example the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) is a regional body made of representatives of the Great Lakes region – NGOs, members of foreign governments, could participate as a body to develop mechanisms and processes that harmonize across the board to monitor minerals coming from the Congo. It would need to be legitimate and transparent.
Stakeholders have the most to lose from an embargo, and the most to gain from a process being established. Companies that purchase the minerals have benefited from the status quo. There is an important role for foreign governments and industry bodies – they will need to make sure that the process is legitimate and transparent. To do that, we will need an international effort to tackle the real problems on the ground. An end to violence and a restoration of peace will only happen if we can create agreements that prevent loopholes which allow the violence to continue.
This is one of our initiatives that has had the most tangible results. Universities are one of the largest purchasers of electronics. This project provides a framework that allows student activists to build consumer demand for conflict free products. They do this by encouraging their university administration to take action to call for the conflict-free electronics. This is an initiative that educates and empowers the consumers – to build the consumer voice, which ultimately will create an environment of political will nationwide.
“So far, Stanford University, Westminster college in Missouri, and the
University of Pennsylvania have all passed resolutions or made statements
committing to the conflict free movement"
We work closely with STAND (the student led division of Genocide Intervention Network) –as our implementing partner on this project. We have a kit on our website that describes the program in detail and how it works with larger initiative.
Universities together have great leverage, and can create a domino effect with companies and could impact them individually.
So far three universities – Stanford, Westminster College in Missouri and the University of Pennsylvania have passed resolutions or made statements that commit to the conflict free movement. We’ve outlined three different paths these resolutions can follow:
1) A Procurement Policy: when conflict free electronics are available, the university will purchase only those electronics;
2) A Statement of Support: The University will issue a strong statement of support for conflict free materials, that they are concerned about the link between the conflict issue and the violence in the region.
3) Shareholder Proxy Vote: whenever they as a university are faced with a vote on their shares that are related to Congo or conflict minerals, their shares will be committed to conflict free materials.
There are about 45 universities throughout the country that are looking at this initiative. We have seen solid efforts at Yale, Cornell, Boulder and others.
WHAT CAN STUDENTS DO TO GET INVOLVED AT THEIR UNIVERSITIES OR COLLEGES? WHAT IS THE PROCESS?
Students can start with raising awareness – engaging with professors who are involved in international affairs, the Law School, the Business School or student groups, to generate widespread buzz.
The next step is to go to the administration, and ask them to draw up a Resolution. They should present to the administration that a large portion of the student body is supporting this initiative – the idea is to convince the professors and other stakeholders in the universities that this is important and will have an impact.
THE SUBJECT MATTER OF THE CONGO IS SO HIGHLY EMOTIONAL THAT PEOPLE CAN, AND PROBABLY DO, EASILY DISCONNECT FROM THE ENORMITY OF THE PAIN AND THE ENORMITY OF THE TASK AT HAND.
HOW DO YOU GET PEOPLE TO MAINTAIN AN EMOTIONAL CONNECTION TO YOUR WORK?
We are very conscious of the fact that we are not looking to make people feel paralyzed with guilt, or to make them feel depressed or hopeless. Our focus is very much on the power of individual and collective action.
We try to educate by offering a tangible action that the public can take –they can do something as small as clicking on our website, to begin.
MESSAGES OF HOPE FROM THE CONGO
We’ve found that there are compelling messages of hope coming from survivors in the Congo. On the ground, we’re hearing the following:
Relief that is coming into the country is just a band aid – it isn’t a cure. Survivors need to know that people are working actively, looking for a cure to the tragedy taking place there, and not just a short term antidote.
Survivors believe that peace is possible. Many women’s rights activists say that women have suffered horrific assaults, they have watched the killing of their families and neighbors, they have been stigmatized and ostracized from their communities. Yet in spite of all this, they believe that the hope for peace still exists. If they can believe this, then none of us has the right to believe otherwise. We all have a responsibility to do our part to make sure that these survivors maintain the hope that one day, there will be peace in the region, that they will be able to make their families whole, that they will be able to live without fear again.
People believe that the minerals can benefit the communities of Congo. Despite the instability and devastation in the Congo, people still believe that those minerals can become a source of benefit for the people. They are looking for leadership to make sure the benefits aren’t lining the pockets of the war criminals.
They want to bring the country back to the people. These are people who are saying that their lives can be different, that they shouldn’t have to live this way. They want the movement to bring the country back to the people.
WE’VE TALKED ABOUT HOW COLLEGE STUDENTS ARE A GREAT RESOURCE FOR ACTIVISM. WHAT OTHER SEGMENTS OF THE PUBLIC ARE YOU TRYING TO REACH?
In addition to students and youth, we’ve found that professional women have really resonated with this cause. We’ve also started to reach out to a different demographic – people who follow tech and IT – the gamers. Video games have an obvious connection through consumer products. We have allies in the Facebook community. We’ve reached out to faith communities in the U.S. and internationally. We also want to reach decision makers, investors and business owners.
WHAT CAN THE GENERAL PUBLIC DO TO GET INVOLVED WITH RAISE HOPE FOR CONGO?
There are a variety of ways the general public can take action. They can go to our website , where there are a number of suggestions for involvement: take our featured action, get your school or campus involved, talk to others about the issue, learn more about it. Once people realize what is happening in Congo, they want to support our efforts.
The important thing, is that we are not about guilt. We want people to feel empowered by the fact that their voice can help shift the demand to conflict free products. We are looking for this movement to change consumer behavior – we want to help people realize just how powerful they are. There are few contexts like this in which an individual voice has the ability to help create real change.
IS THERE WORK AVAILABLE FOR VOLUNTEERS? IF SO, WHAT TYPES OF WORK? WHAT TYPES OF SKILLS AND WHAT KIND OF TIME AVAILABLITY ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?
Volunteers can become a part of the network, they can participate in initiatives as they come up. We’re looking for students who are able to become ambassadors for the campaign on their campuses, activists who can become ambassadors for the campaign in their communities.
“We want people to feel they are part of the solution. We welcome engagement from people with all skill levels, all backgrounds…”
We are interested in interns who have an interest in policy, advocacy and research – we encourage anyone to apply. We are interested in people who have ideas – if they are inspired, and feel they can get a particular demographic involved, we are always interested in hearing.
We want people to feel they are a part of the solution. We welcome engagement from people with all skill levels, from all backgrounds – photographers, journalists, for example. We welcome help with programming and projects that we otherwise wouldn’t have time to do.
With respect to donations: we rely on donations from individuals and foundations. We don’t provide direct services. So any contributions to RHFC are to grow our ability to create effective policy.
WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS YOU WANT THE PUBLIC TO KNOW ABOUT RAISE HOPE FOR CONGO?
First, that RHFC is looking to find solutions to the root causes of the conflict. We want to shift demand to conflict free products.
Second, we believe that consumers and activists have a critical strategic role to play. Any action that people take, no matter how small contributes to the process of change.
Last, we are calling on community segments all across the country, be they faith communities, students, city and state legislators, to join our initiative. If we can create a demand for conflict free materials as far and wide as possible, that is the best chance we have for policy change.
DO YOU THINK THERE WILL EVER BE PEACE IN CONGO?
There is definitely a long road ahead that requires a comprehensive solution on the part of multiple stakeholders both in the Congo and in the International Community, to address the most pressing needs by those impacted by the conflict.
Any solution must consider the economics of the conflict. It needs to address not only the actions of the rebel groups, but also the criminal networks within the Congolese army that allow the instability to continue.
Any solution also needs to address the role of the Congolese government and the multiple actors that need to bring about policy changes that will reinstate the rule of law, with a respect for human rights.
It’s going to take awhile, but if we can create and build the political will, it will be possible to have peace.