19 October 2011

Debate: The Impact of Conflict Minerals on the DRC

With a rising profile due to the conflict mineral campaign it has become important for a diverse group of advocates and activists to answer the question: how does the story of Congo get told? A two day conference by Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) has brought together a diverse group to answer the question in a series of public and private events. Because it was done under the Chatham House Rules, I am unable to attribute the quotes to the panel members. **

Two weeks ago, a panel consisting of Prof Laura Seay, Morehouse College; Mvemba Dizolele, Stanford University; and Kambale Musavuli, Friends of Congo; took part in a two hour discussion that included a constructive exchange of ideas and emphatic audience participation. The discussion was noticeably missing its fourth panelist, John Prendergast of The Enough Project, who audience members were told was unable to make it because of a scheduling conflict.

The first panel member to give his prepared opening remarks first and did not waste time illustrating how the Congo that advocates speak of is not the same country that rests in East Africa. Using a slide of a map of the country, he quizzed the audience where they had traveled in the DRC and showed how the majority had only been to the concentrated Kivus region in the Eastern part of the nation. “We have ignored the rest of the country and the results have been terrible,” he said.

What this has done is place a focus on effort and information in a single part which then has come to represent the entire nation. This is limiting, he points out and has shifted the focus away from what he believes to be the root cause: poor governance. “Nobody talks about how the government has failed on all fronts,” he argued. Rather, the narrative is one of war and rape concentrated in the Kivus. “Did anyone ask who raped these people? Did anyone ask, ‘Where is the Congolese government?’ What about the Army?”

From better governance, he believes that women will be afforded the security that they need to prevent further violence. Part of the solution, to the first panelist, is having ‘the courage to tell the truth’ when discussing the country and what is happening. The second panelist largely agreed with many of the premises set forth by first, but had a different perspective on the role of the international community.

Believing that external actors have done more harm than good in the DRC he advised the Americans in the audience, “The best thing you can do is tell your government to disengage from the Congo.” He pointed to an uneven policy by foreign actors when dealing with Great Lakes Region countries like Uganda and Rwanda which has not allowed for some of the problems to be adequately addressed.

Echoing first’s call for better governance and security, the second added, “It is very important to include the Congolese in the decision making process; especially the diaspora.” He continued saying that the diaspora is able to provide a “unique perspective on the situation given we get to see first-hand how policy is made in the US and how it affects the people on the ground, which the local activists in the Congo are not privy to that type of insight.” Externally, he advised, “Instead of investing in an individual leader, as was done in 2006, advocate for in investing in the democratic process.”

The last panel member shifted the focus more directly to the question of conflict minerals. “The problem is that the whole conflict minerals narrative has been constructed right here in Washington,” he said. Beginning with a 2009 Enough Project paper, conflict minerals have risen in profile leading to national legislation (Dodd-Frank), conflict mineral free college campuses (UPenn is one), and state legislation (California). The idea rests on the fact that the mineral trade funds the perpetrators of violence. Enacting legislation that makes the trade harder for those actors, say advocates, will help to reduce the incidence of violence in the Kivus.

The third takes issue with this supposition and some of the basic conclusions from the report. One example is the claim that the majority of the world’s Colton is mined in the region. According to him, there is little evidence to support this claim. He suggested that if Congolese were included in the process the policy suggestions would have been quite different.

As the conversation between the panel members continued through questions and statements from the audience, it was clear to anyone attending that the issue is extremely complex. Security Sector Reform became a part of the discussion, but everything seemed to fall back into the issue of governance. There was an agreement that the stories being told right now only provide a surface-level understanding of the country and the many forces that have led to the present circumstances.

As an observer, the panel was important because it provided the opportunity for the conversation to expand beyond short messages. In the end, the most important thing will be for the leadership of the conversation to shift. As TMS Ruge tweeted after the event “At what point will DRC take pole position on these debates? We can have hundreds; will mean nothing until DRC owns it!” Advocates will be well served to keep this in mind and work to ensure that this transition of leadership happens soon.

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**I did get permission from two of the three panel members, but cannot use their names and not the remaining member as it will become obvious what that member said. Also, for the sake of anonymity, I will use the masculine gender since two of the three were men.

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