How we are all fuelling “Congo’s war on Women”

On a recent visit in Oslo, Dr. Denis Mukwege urged electronic gadget users to «stop Congo’s war on women» by acknowledging their role in funding violence and corruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo

By Nicole Rafiki

Are you among the millions of consumers worldwide who depend on electronic gadgets produced by tech giants like Apple, Microsoft or Samsung? Chances are that you might be what the celebrated Congolese gynaecologist turned human right’s activist, Dr.Denis Mukwege, calls an «accomplice of the abuse of children, women and men» in the northern and southern Kivu regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This statement was made at the 2016 Oslo Freedom Forum in May where Dr.Mukwege spoke on the terrible causes and effects of sexual violence in eastern Congo. The outspoken activist and three times Nobel peace prize nominee also had a clear recommendation on how to end the atrocities definitively.

  • As consumers of electronic products, we are all witnesses to modern slavery in my native region where children, women and men are exploited to death. In a sense we are directly participating in serious crimes against innocent people without being aware of it, said Dr.Mukwege.

A paradox of the digital era

What started as a civil war in the late 1990’s has since escalated into a regional, or rather, international conflict of interest, claiming 5.4 million casualties in the central African country. No less than 200,000 female and male victims of sexual crimes have been reported since the beginning of the war. Dr.Mukweges private owned Panzi hospital which is situated in the southern Kivu city of Bukavu, continues to serve as a safe haven for a good number of them. Continous activism and lobbying by people like Dr.Mukwege and local or international NGO’s has raised awareness about the roles of producers, consumers and regulators of the trade of minerals from war regions like northern and southern Kivu in the DRC. Recently, consumer responsibility has been brought up as an important factor in the campaigns against such disastrous war crimes. The challenge, though, is tracing the source of war minerals in electronic devices as both the Congolese government and the manufacturers fail to provide this information for public use.

  • It is a major paradox of the digital era that some of the world’s richest, most innovative companies are able to market incredibly sophisticated devices without being required to show where they source raw materials for their components, said the Executive Director of Afrewatch (Africa Resources Watch), Emmanuel Umpula in an interview with Amnesty International.

Civilians taking the risk

The biggest risk, however, is taken by the Congolese miners who face or even die from the physical, mental and health-related diseases they gain from working in the mines. Fairtrade or ethical practices in these work environments are practically unheard of. Tracing the link between mineral trade in DRC and everyday use of our electronic gadgets internationally is said to be essential in ending a war that is now ranking higher than World war II based on the scope of war casualties and socio-economic damage.

Dr. Mukwege stressed that the prevalence of economic instability, sexual violence and recurrent conflicts between armed militia groups and the Congolese army also should be major causes of concern for electronic gadget users worldwide. Reportedly, trade revenues from illicit minerals like coltan and gold in eastern Congo are an important source of income for armed groups who frequently battle to control the mines. Violence and corruption are propelled by the armed group’s imposition of heavy taxes on local artisanal miners and their active participation in the mineral production chains serve to finance their weapon purchases. Dr. Mukwege, therefore, urged that;

  • We (consumers) must seek information to understand the clear links between our beloved mobile phones or other gadgets and the heinous crimes that are repeatedly being committed on the bodies of innocent women in D.R Congo.

Will social activism end war crimes in the Congo?

Although social activists continue to pressure governments and manufacturers worldwide  to face the situation in the Congo, a growing number of anti-activists remain critical these efforts

The prevalence of electronic gadgets in our time inspired some scholars to call it an era of «electronic revolution». Although their usefulness and to some extent, their necessity in our daily lives is undisputed, the production of these devices has been under scrutiny for a number of reasons.

According to the report, “This is What We Die For: Human Rights Abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo Power the Global Trade in Cobalt”, the humanitarian organisation Amnesty international found that major brand manufacturers including Sony, Apple and Samsung use minerals from the war torn regions like northern and southern Kivu, DRC, in their electronic goods. These gadgets are in turn purchased by consumers all over the world, including the Scandinavian countries at profitable prices..

High profile awareness campaigns have propelled an unprecedented involvement from activists like Alec Baldwin and the House of Cards actor Robin Rights who launched the #StandWithCongo campaign last month. While some activists and lobbyists are advocating for a ban on war minerals, others are asking for more transparency from tech manufacturers.

Although this has resulted in the creation of a regulative law in the US, the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, and a pending process to create a similar law in the EU, not everyone agrees that this will bring positive change for the people in eastern Congo. In a recent seminar at the Norwegian Institute of foreign affairs, the Dutch diplomat Dirk-Jan Koch mentioned that a growing number of anti-activists argue that global activism on war mineral shows little regards for the civilian’s economic well being in countries like the DRC. The Congolese labour market like the educational systems is highly affected by the lengthy conflict with 46 % of the population being unemployed despite the country’s estimated $24 trillion worth of untapped deposits of raw minerals according to Forbes magazine.

Many of these, including children as young as seven and adults, therefore resolve to earn meagre salaries by working in the militia controlled mines where serious accidents and deaths have become the order of the day. Anti- activists argue therefore that a ban on war minerals or heavy sanctions on tech manufacturers will result in lower prices and more harsh conditions for the artisanal miners, causing a fatal effect on their only source of income. While the academic and political controversies unfold, the crucial questions about how to enforce consumer participation in stopping human rights violation in DRC remains unanswered.