Conflict Minerals in the Congo and the Failures of Activism

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been one of the world’s most war-torn regions for the past few decades, with over 4.5 million dead from civil war since 1998 alone. Activists have attempted to reduce the complex ethnic and regional conflicts into a simple narrative of cause and effect centering on “conflict minerals.” Stanford activist group “A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition” (STAND) has recently lobbied successfully to address Stanford’s policy regarding conflict minerals. Stanford’s Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing (APIR-L) and the Board of Trustees approved a proposal that “Would lead the University to acknowledge the potential impact of its investments on the current crisis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” according to the Daily.

STAND’s argument against conflict minerals goes something like this: Armed militias rape and murder so they can get access to these conflict minerals of gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum, all of which are used in everyday electronic devices. These minerals are sold to foreign companies and the profits continue to fund the existence of violent militias.

The recent congressional financial reform bill, known as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, contains an obscure provision that requires companies to reveal the steps they are taking to ensure that the resources in their supply chain are not tainted with the blood of Congolese conflict. If only reality were that simple. In eastern Congo, where the mineral deposits largely exist, the Dodd-Frank law has been catastrophic for the local population.

Unable to farm because of civil war, much of the local population has turned to artisanal (by hand) mining. Thousands of families who would otherwise starve and be unemployed have scratched out an existence, however meager, by mining for minerals. In response to Dodd-Frank’s passage, however, Congolese President Joseph Kabila banned artisanal mining in eastern Congo, sending government troops to enforce the ban. These troops instead saw an opportunity to mine the minerals themselves and trade them on the black market, forcing Kabila to remove the ban six months later.

The Dodd-Frank bill effectively has created a US embargo against Congolese minerals, with companies boycotting minerals from the region rather than facing allegations. This is possible because the Congo is not a major producer of any of these metals—according to US Geological Survey data, the Congo is only responsible respectively for 3.4, 8.4, and 0.28 percent of the world’s tin, tantalum, and tungsten production.

China has recently opened up shop in eastern Congo, and they are now buying minerals at discounted prices, with a complete lack of transparency and human rights. The central government has controlled the Congolese conflict by assimilating militia groups into the army, yet these militias continue to operate with impunity, and profit from multiple revenue sources. According to Hoover Institute Visiting Fellow Mvemba Dizolele, “Losing access to the mines will marginally affect their capacity to generate funds, considering that weapons and ammunition are relatively inexpensive.”

This proxy voting guideline only makes Stanford support other shareholder resolutions about conflict-free investing. While STAND and other organizations should be lauded for their good intentions, this case provides a perfect example for the unintended consequences of activism.

The Dodd-Frank bill has indisputably had negative effects on the greater Congolese society. Sometimes, having good intentions is not enough without sufficient research and knowledge to back it up. In the case of student activism such as with STAND, it often seems as if the goal is to accomplish something, perhaps to fulfill the ever-important mission of feeling good about oneself.

Reckless actions in the name of activism can be harmful and dangerous—all student groups at Stanford should learn from this lesson to research and evaluate issues thoroughly before demanding action. In light of the recent information showing that the well-intentioned Dodd-Frank bill has actually increased suffering in the eastern Congo, I highly encourage the Board of Trustees to rethink its support of STAND’s proxy voting resolution.

Stanford prides itself on the high quality of intellectual dialogue on campus, with student groups providing the outlet for many students to make their voices heard. The altruistic desire to do good undeniably motivates student groups such as STAND. Yet the tragedy in the DRC illustrates that a willingness to think critically must go hand in hand with those good intentions. Simply conforming to the goals of national movements without questioning their proposals inevitably leads to activism without thinking, lemming-like behavior if it ever existed. Student groups need to stop settling for this bandwagon form of activism and think critically when it comes to issues they care about. Until this happens, the danger of doing more harm than good will remain.

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