Editor’s Note: This piece by Emma Smith and Christine Garcia, which originally appeared on PolicyMic, was the winner of the 2013 STAND Human Rights Essay Contest that challenged students to provide recommendations for how U.S. policy can help stop mass atrocities unfolding around the world. Smith and Garcia are students at Dartmouth College and members of the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has struggled to uphold the human rights of its citizens since the establishment of Belgium's colonial authority in 1870. More than 5.4 million Congolese have died from conflict-related causes from 1998 to present day, making what is known as the Second Congo War the most deadly conflict since World War II. Even though the United States has committed monetary aid and troops to the United Nations peacekeeping force (MONUSCO), the U.S. government can do more to simultaneously secure the well-being of civilians in the volatile North and South Kivu regions of the DRC and promote U.S. national security.
The humanitarian crisis in the DRC, though grounded in historical inter-ethnic tensions and grievances, can also be attributed — at least in part — to the conflict over the extraction, transport, and taxation of three "conflict minerals" that are crucial to the circuitry in most electronic products: tin, tantalum, and tungsten. The four major militias, as well as many other disparate armed groups, finance their violence through the illicit conflict minerals trade. They fight to control mines and territories, leading directly to the use of violence against communities including forced labor, torture, and sexual violence.
The United States government response must be two-fold and address not only the symptoms of the conflict — such as the violence and blatant disregard for human rights — but also the underlying root causes.
The conflict is undeniably embedded in a history of kleptocratic rule. Belgium’s colonial government created institutions that focused on extracting as much wealth as possible. This systematic degradation of the Congolese, coupled with the lack of inclusive institutions meant that upon independence the Democratic Republic of the Congo was and remains unable to provide for itself, leaving it vulnerable to both internal and external predation.
The United States should be concerned that the DRC is climbing the ladder of the failed state index, currently second only to Somalia. Failed states pose a threat to the security of the continent as well as to the rest of the world. The United States must commit financially and practically to the long-term solution of rebuilding and strengthening government institutions. Even if the world is able to address the ruthless slaughter of the Congolese, those who are left will be unable to lead their country without education, rule of law, and a fair government.
Addressing the roots of the conflict alone, however, is not sufficient. Without peace and security, the DRC can never work toward becoming a strong, stable country, regardless of whether the root causes of the conflict are resolved. It is clear that military action alone cannot create peace and security, since the largest UN peacekeeping force has been stationed permanently in the DRC since 1999. What is more important is increasing information flow and transparency. One of the most common excuses used now to justify inaction is not being aware of a problem or not having the information to fix it. With increased awareness comes increased responsibility — as people learn more about an issue, they are less able to ignore it. Moreover, increased information will make existing initiatives like MONUSCO more effective.
There are three ways to increase information about the DRC. First, increase transparency in the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU). This government organization, a part of the State Department, distributes information on humanitarian crises. While this is admirable, there are ways to make this intelligence-gathering more effective for the DRC. The HIU should make a special provision to provide information about the DRC directly to MONUSCO as soon as it is analyzed, and be held accountable for withholding information for "national security" reasons. By increasing transparency and accountability, the DRC will finally be able to benefit from HIU’s resources. This will make MONUSCO more effective, since HIU can provide up-to-date information on militia locations and movements.
Second, reallocate a small portion of USAID funding to create an equivalent of the Satellite Sentinel Project, which uses satellite imaging to corroborate reports of human rights abuses in Sudan. By either renting time on a private satellite or reallocating time on one of the U.S.’s satellites, information on militia movements and human rights conditions could be disseminated more quickly to MONUSCO and NGOs operations in the DRC.
Third, use government resources to audit the supply chains of conflict minerals. Instead of forcing electronic companies to audit their own supply chains (often with opposition), having the government do it would be more efficient. This would even be budget-neutral if it is covered by a small tax increase on technology companies. Just a tax increase of 0.5% on the top 9 technology firms would generate approximately $4.5 billion, and a tax increase of only 0.1% would generate almost $910 million, both of which are negligible to these companies since they already pay 35% in taxes.
The current situation in the DRC is unacceptable. Not only does its status as a failed state affect U.S. security, but it is also one of the world’s worst human rights crises. Addressing the root causes of the conflict is certainly necessary. Without strong institutions, the DRC cannot build a government capable of ensuring long-term stability. However, it is more important to halt the conflict as soon as possible, before more families can be torn apart by militia violence and sexual assault. The best way to stop this violence is to increase the flow of information about the conflict, which can be done in three possible ways: increase transparency and efficacy of HIU, create an initiative comparable to the Satellite Sentinel Project, and use a negligible tax increase on technology companies to audit the supply chains of conflict minerals. These three solutions will potentially prompt greater accountability, and will make MONUSCO’s efforts more effective without having to commit more American troops. As a world leader, the United States has a responsibility to immediately leverage its resources to alleviate the appalling humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Note: The original version of this post cited 5.8 million as the number of Congolese who have died from conflict-related causes. For this cross posting we adjusted the figure to the more widely cited 5.4 million estimate published by International Rescue Committee in 2007.
Photo: Peacekeepers in eastern Congo (Enough / Sarah Zingg)