I’ve always considered myself a fairly good person, with a strong sense of morality based on empathy for the pain and suffering of others. In 2004, I took a hiatus from my anthropological studies at university and traveled overseas to parts of West Africa and the Middle East. It was there that I was first truly introduced to war and its devastating effects on a population. As a Canadian, I had never really experienced or seen anything remotely like war before, and it was eye-opening. The pain and suffering touched me deeply, and I knew I would spend the rest of my life doing whatever I could to lessen this suffering.
I came back to Canada and returned to university with a redirected focus on peace and conflict studies. I wanted to know why wars were happening, why humans behaved the way they sometimes did, and what led one group of people to hate an entire other group of people. I could see the devastation that resulted from war; I could see the pain it caused. What I couldn’t see was why human beings would want to do these terrible things to each other. What was the motivating factor behind these conflicts? A Global Studies course showed me for the first time that I was directly connected to some of this violence through my own actions and purchases. For the first time I realized I was not only connected to these wars, I was partially responsible for these continuing atrocities.
For example, I buy a cell phone at my local mall with little thought into what it took to get there. It is quite feasible that while it was being manufactured, the components in that cell phone made over 25 different stops in several different countries along the way, making it incredibly difficult to track. Before reaching the first stop, it is possible that human beings were abused for the extraction of metals that make up components within my phone. Populations were potentially removed from their ancestral land above the mines and forced at gunpoint to dig for the metals as slave labor, under incredibly dangerous conditions. Warlords, who recruit child soldiers, may have used the millions of dollars made each month from the mine to commit mass atrocities such as kidnappings, rape, torture, and mass murder against innocent populations – all to secure control of these money-making resources, and all before the metals even arrive at the first of many stops in the making of my cell phone. I then use the phone for a year or so until the next gadget comes along, at which point I throw that cell phone away and buy a new one, starting the whole process again. So I asked myself, why is this happening? Why are we buying these products that lead to the abuse of other human beings, and how did they come to be the only option available in the marketplace? How is it that companies who manufacture them seem to have lost complete control over how they are made?
When I learned that my purchases were indirectly encouraging violence, I was furious. I figured that most people would be outraged as well if they only knew the realities of their products and maybe that outrage would force something to change. So I started writing about it and conducting awareness campaigns around my university and city. I also vowed to try and stop buying metals or consuming products unless I could prove they were conflict-free. I figured if I couldn’t directly do anything about the wars, I could at the very least not help finance them and make my voice as loud as possible to encourage others to do the same.
Rebecca writes for Ashoka Peace and is the editor-in-chief of A Peace of Conflict at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario. She will be moving back to West Africa in a month.