Reframing the Heart of Africa in St Andrews

I have a BlackBerry. It’s a good phone; it’s sturdy, lets me check my email, and is generally useful for communicating with family and friends outside of the UK. As an arts student, however, I have relatively minimal understanding of how the gadget actually works. I can, however, identify quite acutely my own ethical qualms with owning the phone, which contains various minerals of questionable origin, and apply numerous principles of post-colonial and structural violence theory to my own self-criticism.

Image courtesy of Fiona Lloyd Davies, © 2013, all rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Fiona Lloyd Davies, © 2013, all rights reserved.

As I, perhaps hypocritically, continue to indulge in the luxury of owning a mobile phone, I recognise the humanitarian injustice of sourcing the necessary minerals through illicit mines controlled by insurgent groups such as those in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Perhaps the complete moral high ground is not mine to take as a technology consumer, however, it is wholly valid to insist that future gadgets be made with ethically sourced minerals, or that those of dubious origin be marked and subject to consumer discrimination.

This hypocrisy is also perhaps a justified one; as I doubt the movement would get any traction without utilising modern technology. I suspect my ability to survive amongst Washington lobbyists would be quite diminished if my BlackBerry was a literal blackberry.

Creating a ‘Fair Trade’ type system for identifying products containing ethically sourced minerals is a goal of the Coalition for a Conflict Free St Andrews, an affiliate of Conflict-Free Campus initiative, an international student organisation advocating human rights improvements for Congolese workers and raising hope for a solution to the on-going conflicts in Eastern Congo.

The widespread violence and instability in the Eastern Congo is affected by factors that often remain unaddressed by the international community. Recent attention has focused on M23 armed insurgencies and the group’s success in taking over Eastern Congo and displacing approximately 800,000 people from their homes, despite the presence of UN troops and international censure of Rwanda and Uganda for backing the rebels in order to support domestic economic and security interests.

These rebel groups are often financed through exports of gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and enable the perpetuation of regional violence. Government forces and insurgent groups fight for control of mining operations, often employing rape and murder in order to compel compliance in the illicit ‘conflict mineral’ economy.

Sexual violence has become conventionalised as a means of subordination, with the UN Population Fund estimating that 160 women are raped each week in Eastern Congo, and 60% of victims are gang raped by members of armed insurgent groups.

 Once these minerals have been smuggled out of the country and refined, it is difficult to track their origin. These minerals are then used in consumer products such as cell phones and computer devices, and are quickly dispersed through the global market.

The Conflict Free Initiative advocates for a mineral certification program that would allow consumers to identify products containing conflict minerals similar to the Fair Trade branding scheme, in order to allow consumers to make informed decisions regarding the indirect funding of violence and atrocity in the DRC.

In June of 2012, the Coalition for a Conflict Free St Andrews compelled the University to include a conflict-mineral clause into its procurement policy, and have issued a plea for a conflict-free Europe, demanding the European Parliament take action to enforce UN and OECD guidelines in procuring ethically sourced minerals.

On April 19th and 20th, The Coalition for a Conflict Free St Andrews will host an emergency conference on the Congo entitled ‘Moving forward in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo: the roles to be played by the international community,’ featuring Keynote Speakers Dr. Gerard Prunier, internationally renown French Africanist, and Dr. Koen Vlassenroot, professor at the University of Ghent and public authority on the DRC. The conference aims to stimulate debate and discussion amongst international scholars regarding the humanitarian and environmental situation in the DRC, and to provide an opportunity to educate and engage members of the St Andrews community.

The conference will also feature Marie-Therese Nlandu, lawyer and activist from the DRC; Shana Mongwanga, director, activist, and founder of AFRICALIVES! PRODUCTIONS; Norbet Mbu-Mputu, former UN worker and Congolese journalist; Bandi Mbubi, founder and director of Congo Calling, and renowned TEDx Speaker; Fiona Lloyd-Davis, award-winning filmmaker and photojournalist; Sophia Pickles of Global Witness; Dr. Kevin Dunn of Hobart William Smith Colleges; Dr. Jana Hönke of University of Edinburgh; and Dr. Carrie Pemberton Ford, director of the Centre for Applied Research in Human Trafficking and director of the Women’s Development Centre in the DRC; in addition to University of St Andrews professors Dr. Mario Aguilar, Dr. Ian Taylor, Dr. Hazel Cameron, Dr. Jaremey McMullin, and Dr. Alison Watson.

Ben Collins, Director of the Conflict Free Coalition in St Andrews and Conference, summarises his objective for the conference: “From the outset, I wanted this conference to resonate with those looking to create and implement positive change in the Eastern Congo. Activists and scholars know the facts, we know about the deaths, the refugees, the exploitation, the corruption. The question that the international community has yet to answer is ‘how do we work cohesively to enact long-term development in this war-afflicted region of the Congo?’ After all, what we have seen in the last several months has been unprecedented – between Congo’s neighbours holding talks in Addis Ababa to the surrender of Bosco Ntaganda to the formation of the UN’s first ever intervention force to the creation of the UN Envoy to the Great Lakes region. We need to discuss the significance and repercussions of these developments, and how we can move forward. The international community has just as much a duty to help Congo move forward as the Congolese people.”

Tickets are available online.