This post originally appeared on Juliette Terzieff’s Global Citizen blog.
After spending over a week in eastern Congo I find myself staring out of my office window watching the bustle of D.C. streets contemplating how to give voice to the many complexities that I learned, witnessed, and discussed in my exchanges with Congolese men, women, and youth. One clear recollection I have is how not a single person I met or spoke with was unaffected by the conflict – it is pervasive and touches everyone, even if they have not been directly targeted by armed groups. Their stories told tales of surviving brutality that I can barely begin to digest, but despite the haunting sorrow, trauma, and loss recounted, they each emanated strength and conviction that a future unstained by death and devastation will be realized. Their sheer resilience in the face of steep challenges was both staggering and deeply inspiring. I witnessed the energy of Congolese professionals, activists, and survivors actively engaged in combating the effects of conflict and finding solutions toward peace and stability, often at the risk of their lives, security, and bodily integrity.
Civil society groups tracking mining operations, doctors providing urgent care for survivors of sexual violence, lawyers seeking to end impunity, former child soldiers embracing a new lease on life, women’s rights activists and internally displaced civilians all echoed the same key assertions: We have become victims of our natural wealth, our state is absent in protecting us and in ensuring that these resources are exploited for the benefit of the people. We want peace. To achieve peace we must cut off the roots that economically empower the armed groups who are shredding our society favoring conflict over peace. When we get peace the Congolese are capable of doing the rest, rest assured we will reclaim our rights, reignite our livelihoods and rebuild our communities. Humanitarian assistance and aid is critical for responding to the impacts of conflict, but it is just a band aid and what we really need is a cure.
Sitting at my desk I face the looming question – can action on the part of U.S. consumers and constituents really cut off the roots fueling armed groups in a meaningful way? My mind immediately flashes to an image of what I might have seen in eastern Congo if I had visited four or five months ago. Armed groups pillaging communities and smuggling minerals through neighboring countries, a Congolese state completely absent in protecting its citizens acquiescent of the fact that international accountability is missing while companies continue to woo us with shiny new products pleading ignorance and inattentive to Congolese suffering.
While this landscape was still evident, there are marked differences thanks to decisive action taken by the American public and Congolese civil society to help pass U.S. legislation that requires the tracing and auditing of minerals supply chains. Based on what I saw in eastern Congo, this legislation has certainly shaken things up. The status quo now exposed as unacceptable has triggered action by industry professionals and companies to develop systems for tracing minerals to their source. It has tasked the U.S. government, otherwise absent, with developing comprehensive strategies to tackle the illicit minerals trade and jerked the Congolese government, who fear an international embargo on the country’s mineral exports, to issue a ban on all mining activities in North Kivu, South Kivu, and Maniema.
All stakeholders are increasingly aware of the rising hum of consumer voices expressing concern about the minerals in our products and looking for assurances that the technology at the heart of our business, social, communications, and defense infrastructure is not coming at the cost of Congolese lives. Awareness prevails.
Any idea how this happened? If memory serves me correctly, success was rooted in the voices and action of a few thousand American constituents and a handful of Congolese civil society actors and faith leaders who impressed upon U.S. senators and congressmen the need to champion this cause and come clean for Congo. One particularly noteworthy moment in this campaign came through the use of interactive social media platforms to publicly appeal to key congressional targets.
During the week of April 19-26, 2010, Enough Project supporters used Twitter and Facebook to politely hijack the official Facebook pages of 10 members of Congress who were key to the bill’s passage. The lobbying campaign, called “Change the Equation for Congo,” targeted two members of Congress each day for five days. Enough Project supporters blanketed legislators’ official Facebook profiles with calls to co-sponsor HR 4128, the Conflict Minerals Trade Act. In the course of the week, more than 1,500 public comments were posted – in most cases completely covering each representative’s Facebook profile – prompting them to respond to their constituents. This public constituent pressure coupled with in-person meetings of Congolese civil society and faith leaders with key Congressional targets resulted in bi-partisan support for the legislation and ultimately its successful passing.
The power of a few conscious and committed voices lobbying collaboratively is pretty amazing if you ask me – and I can say that since I had nothing at all to do with its success, having just come on board at Enough in July 2010 – and judging from the attention it has garnered from states, companies, U.N. officials, and citizens alike, it clearly shifted the status quo and set off a chain reaction.
But the work has only just begun and the path ahead is bumpy, complicated, and long. Questions and speculations arise frequently: Was this the right time? Will it achieve the right solution? Will there be repercussions in the process? The honest answer is yes, yes, and yes. Yes, there will be short-term repercussions that impact Congolese lives and livelihoods and instigate the armed groups to grasp tighter to their source of revenue leading to waves of fresh violence. Yes, we can achieve the right solutions through multidimensional and multi-stakeholder policies that address the immediate consequences, ensure the best industry-wide due diligence standards, initiate the process of long term reforms, deliver on dismantling armed militias, and create a regional certifications scheme. And finally yes, this was the right time – nearly six million lives lost, hundreds of thousands displaced and orphaned, countless homes and communities burned to the ground as a result of this conflict. I think we can all agree that it certainly was about time!
It is with the reality on the ground and the voices of Congolese civil society, professionals, activists, and survivors in mind that I hold fast to the assertion that it must be the voices and actions of concerned U.S. citizens and consumers standing tall with Congolese human rights defenders that will move the hand of the U.S. government and corporate decision makers, not only to ensure our supply chains are conflict-free, but to ensure Congo’s mineral sector is conflict-free.
Photo: Lake Kivu (Enough)