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On Cell Phones, Sexual Violence, and Straw Men

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On Cell Phones, Sexual Violence, and Straw Men

Posted by David Sullivan on December 14, 2009

On Cell Phones, Sexual Violence, and Straw Men

Morehouse professor Texas in Africa is skeptical about much Congo-related advocacy, particularly that which focuses on the role of conflict minerals in fueling the violence. Having conducted field research in the Kivus, especially about the role of Congolese civil society groups, she knows a lot about the region and regardless of our disagreements we welcome her perspective. But her recent post, which takes issue with claims that the minerals are directly causing sexual violence, is an egregious and misleading attack on a straw man.

Texas in Africa starts from the notion that Enough is promoting a “cell phones/minerals cause rape” thesis, an oversimplification and misrepresentation of the research and policy positions that Enough has developed in multiple strategy papers over the course of the past year. In our reporting we’ve been quite careful to argue that the relationship between the minerals trade and mass atrocities including sexual violence is, like most things in the Congo, complicated. Texas in Africa goes to great lengths to demonstrate her own understanding of these complexities: “There’s a definite correlation between some of the violence and the fact that armed groups profit from the mineral trade. And we know beyond any doubt that armed groups terrorize populations who live near their respective mines.”

The strategy and reasoning behind Enough’s conflict minerals work is not that the minerals trade is the “primary cause” of conflict in the Kivus, or that if you could somehow get rid of the minerals that the conflict would magically cease. Rather, the international dimension of the minerals trade provides an entry point for efforts to address a multidimensional crisis. Because we are the ultimate consumers of tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, we have an opportunity to channel our demand for these products in ways that can begin to reduce support to war criminals and their support networks. Moreover, continuing demand for conflict resources has severely undermined international investments in aid, elections, peacekeeping, and other assistance. Efforts to deal with the minerals trade is a necessary component of a wider peace strategy that will require, as my colleague John Prendergast has argued, “everything from grassroots development and reconciliation efforts all the way up to an effective diplomatic strategy and a peacekeeping force that is actually capable of protecting civilians.”

What are some of the direct connections between violence in eastern Congo and the minerals trade?

–    Recent military operations have been centered on mineral resources. The U.N. Experts report details how control of mining areas was the key objective for the Umoja Wetu and Kimia II military operations. ICG reports that Rwandan and CNDP troops were airlifted to Walikale shortly after the launch of Umoja Wetu, and the Experts report that these forces “had cleared several areas of civilian populations,” and “planted the seeds of their present control over the principal axes in mining-rich zones of the territory.”

–    Minerals supply chains are a key lifeline for the FDLR. Many of the key enablers of the FDLR identified by the U.N. Experts are deeply involved in the minerals trade. This includes a Bukavu-based comptoir who was using Western Union to send funds to diaspora leadership, Congolese army officials with a long history of collaborating with the FDLR for profit, and the very problematic role of neighboring countries including Uganda, Burundi, and Tanzania, as well as the continuing purchases of FDLR-sourced minerals by international traders.

By demanding unreasonable levels of proof to validate a misleading “cell phones cause rape” thesis, Texas in Africa either ignores or neglects the substantial research and analysis of militarized mining that does point to potential policy solutions. This ranges from IPIS’ interactive map, which shows armed groups controlling the majority of mining sites in the Kivus, the exhaustive investigations by the UN Group of Experts, emerging steps toward consensus on short-term steps to address the problem, and regional steps toward a certification scheme, to cite just a few.

Another highly problematic aspect of Texas in Africa’s argument is the call for a data-driven approach to sexual violence. She should know the enormous problems with collecting data on the incidence of rape in eastern Congo. The UN Experts report “a worrying trend that victims of attacks who are discovered to have reported the abuses have often been attacked again in retaliation.” Demanding even more data in such a context could exacerbate these deadly dynamics.

Are there arguments to be made against our approach? Sure, and we’re happy to engage in substantive debate with critical voices. Other anonymous bloggers have already done more to advance this debate, and we do our best to incorporate their contributions into our work.

Does violence happen elsewhere in the region? Of course it does. Are grievances around land rights and citizenship also a driver of conflict? There is no doubt about this. Do other resources like charcoal also find their way into the coffers of armed groups? Absolutely. Do these factors somehow negate the crucial role of the international minerals trade in financing the largest threats to the civilian population? I would say no.

Texas in Africa closes by suggesting that policymakers provide the Congolese people with “peace, public order, and a chance to make life better.” What are the principal obstacles to such worthwhile pursuits? Is the continuing lifeline afforded by the criminal networks trading FDLR-sourced tin ore and gold an obstacle to peace? Is the existence of a minerals-driven patronage network that extends all the way from Bisie mine up to the highest levels of the Congolese army a problem for public order and a hindrance for security sector reform? And is the opportunity cost of the militarized minerals sector, the revenues that should have gone to providing basic services such as health and education, an impediment to improving the lives of Congolese civilians on the ground?


Photo: Gold powder. (Grassroots Reconciliation Group/Sasha Lezhnev)