The failure in understanding the Congo

The new documentary film, "We Will Win Peace," skillfully debunks many myths behind conflict minerals in the Congo.

Washington, DC: In front of the White House an activist carries a megaphone facing a crowd. He is visibly agitated, excited as he screams: “We will win peace … in the Congo!” The Congo, or Democratic Republic of the Congo as the country is called since the ousting of autocrat Mobutu in 1997, is the scene of the most persistent concatenation of armed conflicts since the early 1990s, allegedly due to greed for raw ore and rare earth.

The activist and his colleagues from Enough Project, an American NGO that tries to “end genocide,” claim to have found the logic of these wars: rebels who rape helpless women and girls in order to ransack the vast mineral riches of eastern Congo. Their claim, as powerful as it is simple, was instrumental in paving the way for a legal novelty: a US piece of law that immediately engages with the exploitation of so-called “conflict minerals” in Central Africa including tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold (aka 3TG). Unfortunately, though, the claim is untrue – and this is what a new feature-length documentary is about.

Seth Chase, Ben Radley and their team produced a meticulously researched 90-minute film on an issue that may simultaneously be the most salient in media terms, when it comes to Western perception of the Congo, and the most misunderstood in its essence and meanings. We Will Win Peace navigates through this cleavage in both virtual and actual life. In the footsteps of Mr. Ryan Gosling, Ms. Nicole Richie, and other celebrity activists, Chase traces the making of a narrative of eastern Congo’s recurrent conflict throughout a plethora of YouTube clips. Enough Project consistently denied to be interviewed and, Radley admits, “It was certainly frustrating and revealing to experience the difficulty of holding such actors accountable when their actions cause harm.” In turn, the filmmakers do something neither advocacy nor US congress leaders seemed to have considered necessary – a series of in-depth interviews and testimonies from Congolese miners, civil society activists, and analysts who describe the impact to date of Dodd-Frank Act, Section 1502. So, how has this bill come about and what relevance has it for eastern Congo?

Almost ten years ago, a group of American congressmen – some of them close to the current President under whose name the eventual “Obama’s Law” is known in the Congo – went forward with a law project to break the suspected link between rape, violence, and greedy warlords. Despite the massive support of NGOs such as Enough Project and others, the draft did not make it through the house, and the Conflict Minerals Act failed. However, Enough’s leader John Prendergast and Senators Brownback and Durban did not relinquish; and an emaciated version of the Conflict Minerals Act made its way into the miscellaneous provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, a vast law package aiming at improved business regulation and consumer protection in the slipstream of the American mortgage and financial crisis. As Prendergast confessed to the late Didier de Failly, a Belgian missionary and human rights defender, the crucial accompanying measures to make transparent mining viable were then dropped for the sake of simplicity and policy success.

We Will Win Peace goes beyond merely unveiling the political ramblings around Capitol Hill. In the movie, Séverine Autesserre, a professor at Columbia University and author of several books on peacebuilding and the Congo, explains how the simple story that led to Dodd-Frank 1502 not only obscures myriad other causes and consequences of conflict and violence in the Congo but actively contributes to a biased solution with counterproductive effects such as an increase of sexual violence since the law’s adoption. Jason Stearns, the Director of the Congo Research Group at New York University, stresses the futile Western perception of Congolese “rebels on dope and opium”, looting mines and raping: “This is not what the conflict is about today, and it was not what the conflict was about when it first started in 1996.” Stearns used to lead the UN Group of Experts, a panel mandated to track violations of sanctions and human rights in the realms of arms trade and 3TG mining. In more recent reports, this panel confirms that – at least indirectly – US legislation and the ensuing de facto embargo on Congolese minerals helped smuggling to skyrocket.

However, Dodd-Frank 1502 does not forbid anyone to trade in these minerals, it simply imposes on US stock market listed companies (and their suppliers) to report on whether or not they have sourced from the Congo and its neighbors and give proof of their efforts to perform “due diligence” in their business activities. Does that tame civil war? Enter Thierry Sikumbili, a provincial head of Congo’s mining export authority: “Can you cite one country in this region that produces arms? I don’t think so. You ask us to trace our minerals, but I would have liked the West to trace its arms. It is a bit like wanting one thing and its opposite at the same time.”

The documentary follows several miners and petty traders across Congo’s Kivu region. Artisanal exploitation of these minerals is estimated to be the lifeblood for millions of Congolese. Jean de Dieu Habani, a tailor working in one of eastern Congo’s mining hubs, is one of them. He recalls how his business was affected by the de facto embargo and how all his peers have become jobless since “Obama’s Law” remote-controls the handling of Congolese mineral trade. Debora Safari, a restaurant owner from Lemera outlines how embargo-related price drops and the ensuing monopolization of mining through the international tin industry’s iTSCi project has left her without income as miners cannot afford eating at her restaurant anymore. Apocalypse Fidèle, a miner-turned-rebel, reports how he has been denied digging for a living and ended up joining Raia Mutomboki, the “militia of angry citizens.” Radley explains how “high levels of poverty and unemployment provide fertile ground for armed group recruitment, so if you are overly zealous in your regulation of the sector to the point that it suffocates, you will be adding as much fuel to the fire by providing fresh recruits as you are dousing by depriving militia leaders of mineral revenue.” He adds, “focusing exclusively or overly on the mining sector is not a solution, but a distraction from deeper, more thorny issues.”

It is the strength of this formidable documentary to go beyond simple stories. By giving a voice to the Congolese, it mercilessly uncovers the failure in understanding the Congo and its conflicts, partly for the sake of policy, partly for mere neglect of the government, the civil society, and ultimately the miners in the Congo. In Chase’s own words, “we wanted to show the very real consequences of trying to apply a solution from the outside, we wanted to investigate a Congo that was connected to the rest of the world via an image of war and suffering. For me this is a film about broken systems, and people trying to survive within.” We Will Win Peace is a crucial, deep, and unavoidable account of what the “white savior” syndrome and “badvocacy” can spark if the main objective is to respond to one’s own advocacy rather than to the people it is ultimately about.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

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