In the aftermath of Secretary of State Clinton’s trip to Africa, the U.S. has a chance to help bring an end to two of the great unfolding tragedies of the 21st century. Together, Sudan and Congo represent two of Africa’s largest countries, two of Africa’s richest natural resource bases, two of Africa’s longest wars, two of the world’s deadliest conflicts in the past half century, two of the continent’s most predatory governments, and two of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman or a girl. That is a legacy that deserves and demands a rethink of the international response, which has allowed these wars to burn for years.
The essential problem is this: the U.S. and broader international community have been focused almost exclusively on treating symptoms rather than dealing with causes in responding to these two deadly wars. The world spends billions of dollars a year on humanitarian aid and observer forces in Congo and Sudan, without dealing substantially with the causes of the conflicts. It is irresponsible to spend taxpayers’ money in this fashion without a clear plan to solve the problems.
It is urgent that we go beyond treating symptoms and focus on solutions and on ending the wars once and for all. The core causes of conflict in Sudan and Congo are different, and thus require different solutions.
For the last century, Congo has been picked apart by corporate and state predators, stripping the country of its valuable natural resource base without making any contribution to its regeneration. Until we deal with the conflict minerals in the Congo, there will be blood.
This is very much like the blood diamonds in Sierra Leone: until consumers demanded an alteration of corporate practices, until the world stopped buying blood diamonds, Sierra Leone burned. When consumer pressure and other factors combined to alter buying practices, Sierra Leone had a chance for peace, and the people grabbed it. Dealing with the diamonds wasn’t the only factor in Sierra Leone’s transformation, but it was a crucial catalyst. Sierra Leone is a dramatic success story. Congo could be too if our demand for its conflict minerals is addressed.
Conflict minerals are fought over by Congo’s armed groups, including the dysfunctional government’s own army officers. Rape is employed by these conflicting groups as a tool of war and social control, just like amputation was used by the rebels who fought over Sierra Leone’s diamonds. Conflict minerals like tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold help power our electronics industry. When the world finally deals with this conflict-producing demand, Congo will have a chance for peace.
Senators Feingold, Durbin and Brownback recently introduced the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009. This is an excellent start. The Obama administration has a major role to play as well, in the aftermath of Secretary Clinton’s visit there, along with the largest electronics companies. Consumers and voters need to let these companies and President Obama know that they want conflict-free cell phones and laptops.
Furthermore, Congo’s eastern neighbors have added a great deal of fuel to the fires raging in eastern Congo. The Obama administration must expand its role in addressing the regional dimension both in confronting Rwanda and Uganda for their roles in the conflict minerals trade, as well as in supporting more effective counter-insurgency efforts at neutralizing the foreign militias on Congo’s soil, such as the FDLR and the LRA, two of the most ruthless militias Africa has ever known.
Although natural resources are not insignificant in Sudan, the root cause of continued warfare is the concentration of most of the power and wealth of the country in the hands of a small group of people in Khartoum. The best way to erode this absolute authority — short of regime change, which doesn’t appear in the offing — is through peace deals that allow for power sharing with Darfuris, Southerners, Easterners, and residents of other marginalized areas.
This requires a focus by the Obama team on much greater support and attention for implementing the North/South deal, and a concerted investment in building a credible peace process for Darfur, backed by the kind of credible pressures and incentives that helped secure the North/South deal.
This is an extraordinary case in which the interests of the American taxpayer and the interests of war-affected Africans coincide. When we refocus our policy on dealing with the root causes of these wars, and we develop a diplomatic strategy to counter rape as a war weapon, we will save billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives. That is the best way to protect women and girls in the Congo and Sudan in the long run — by ending the world’s two deadliest wars.
This piece originally appeared on Huffington Post.