WTF Friday 12/9/11

“Columns of black smoke from burning tires rose over parts of this capital on Friday as Joseph Kabila, the incumbent president, was declared the official winner of Congo’s troubled election.” Apparently Charles Dickens weighed in over at the New York Times.

Forget all these bogus December holidays, this is my new favorite.

Twitter war between al-Shabab and the Kenyan military? Smh…

WTF Friday 12/2/11

Vladimir Putin appeals to voters and politicians to not “make politics a circus.” Yea, this guy.
I though this article was actually going to explain how Egyptian voters have figured a way to “boycott boycotts.” It did not. I even Googled “how to boycott a boycott.” Nada. Would it just be to vote? If anyone has a creative solution to this I’d love to hear it.

Not Live from the Great Lakes Policy Forum Conference on Congo Advocacy

Amanda and I were tragically absent from the second panel of the GLPF Congo Advocacy event, because we had Important Business to attend to elsewhere. Fortunately, Laura Seay and Daniel Solomon were both live-tweeting the proceedings, and some other members of the audience graciously shared their impressions with me as well.

Apparently, it was highly similar to yesterday’s panel along the dimensions of muffinlessness and derailment of the Q&A period by nonsensical rants. (Very disappointed to have missed what sounds like an epic intervention by a megalomaniacal anthropology student.) However, the heavy reliance on sausage-metaphors-of-questionable-taste was new, and, unlike yesterday, not all of this morning’s panelists were snappy dressers. -One may even have neglected to wash his hair.

While the themes of engagement with Kinshasa and paying more (any) attention to local voices carried through across both days, today’s panel got more directly into the “Conflict Mineral Advocacy: Friend or Foe” debate. Despite the presumably universal appeal of one panelist’s call for finding a way to improve transparency in the mining sector while limiting the costs to the affected population, a meeting of the minds did not occur. My sense is that this comes down to intractable disagreement on two points: (1) whether or not the violence in the Kivus has “economic roots”, and (2) whether the negative impacts of the de facto embargo can be attributed to Dodd-Franck (and therefore to conflict mineral advocacy).

So the conference probably didn’t move anyone off of their entrenched positions on the conflict mineral question. (I haven’t changed my mind, anyway.) However, important points got brought up that have been generally missing from the debate. For instance, yesterday’s money quote: “If it’s about U.S. consumers, please don’t call it a Congo strategy.” Additionally, several panelists raised the issue of how conflict framing by the international advocacy community can produce perverse incentives for local organizations and individuals. This is something I’ve wondered crankily about before, so it was useful to hear about the phenomenon from a more informed perspective.

And for my money, the most interesting point made over the two days was a comment by one of today’s panelists.  He observed that conflict mineral advocacy, by locating the causes of violence in private sector activity, limits itself to private-sector-focused solutions. Something to think about…

Live from the Great Lakes Policy Forum Conference on Congo Advocacy

Morning internets!  We’re on a field trip to the Great Lakes Policy Forum Conference on Congo Advocacy today.

We’re live-blogging live, but the conference policy of “on the record but not for attribution” means that we are apparently only allowed to tell you what is being said, not who is saying it.  So, to set the scene:

We have three panelists and one moderator, making up a total of three distinguished gentlemen and one distinguished lady who is a friend of the blog and is named Laura Seay.* Three of them are wearing suits!  One moderator is wearing a tie! And Tom from A View from the Cave is sitting behind us, which is awfully exciting.

*Laura has given us permission to attribute her statements, so this is not as much of a flagrant rule violation as you probably thought it was. Fooled you!

9:45: Not-to-be-identified-speaker-in-spiffy-yellow-tie notes that international advocacy around Congo is not a new phenomenon. Mark Twain FTW!

9:49: Broad theme for this panel is “how is the narrative of the Congo conveyed in Washington?” (Somehow we think the answer to that question is going to be “not that well, actually.”)

9:52: Oooh! A map!

9:53: Focus on eastern DRC means “we have ignored the rest of the country altogether.”

9:54: Your interest has been captured by eastern DRC, so those are the stories you tell. You think you are doing something good for the Congo, but you’re not. You’re arguably doing something for this region, but ignoring the rest. The result has been terrible.

9:56: Shout out to a great moment in “WTF Congo Advocacy” history – Secretary Clinton’s video cameras for rape victims initiative. Whatever happened with that, anyway?

9:57: No one asks about the Congolese government when something bad happens. When women get raped, we send NGOs, and students from good law schools to run clinics on how to prosecute people that no one has the power to arrest.

9:58: First reference to Dr. Mukwege. Who thinks we’ll get to ten mentions by 11:30?

10:01: What is lacking in the advocacy in this town is the courage to tell the truth. You’re thinking of your next job, and what people will think of you.

10:02: Explanation of who Edward Morrell was is probably not necessary – suspect 100% of this audience has read “King Leopold’s Ghost.”

10:03: Oooh, burn. Report saying that 48 women are raped every hour is “most ridiculous thing I’ve heard.” If you take a holistic view of all rape in a country, then the U.S. is in serious trouble too. Maybe we need to build a Panzi hospital here.

10:06: Exciting Panelist #2! (Suit, no tie. Have we mentioned these panelists are snappy dressers?)

10:09: External intervention is preventing Congolese from dealing with internal problems. U.S. should “stop the support of strong men in Africa.”

10:10: Panelist says that one of the things activists should do is to tell President Obama not to give Kagame immunity in U.S. courts, (as the State Dept. recently requested). Um, good luck with that. Guess we need to do another installment of “LOL International Law.”

10:14: Panelist expresses frustration that IBM and Apple get a hard time about conflict minerals, but mining companies get a free pass.

10:15: Emphasis on need to include the Congolese diaspora in the discussion.

10:17: It’s Laura time! She gives a shout-out to the people at Search for Common Ground who organized this event after seeing a blog post on Texasinafrica where she suggested something like this happen. Yay blogging, blogging FTW.

10:18: When she started her research in the Congo, no one was talking about the Congo, or about conflict minerals. Then celebrities and activists from Nick Kristof to Lucy Liu started visiting the HEAL Africa Hospital and Panzi hospital for advocacy and photo-ops. Then, several years ago, the focus shifted to conflict minerals.

10:20: Someone is yapping all through Laura’s remarks. Shush!

10:21: Laura, like most academics, is not a fan of the conflict-mineral narrative. There is insufficient evidence on more or less all points – how much of the world’s coltan is in Congo, whether cutting off revenue will cause armed groups to stop fighting, etc. More importantly, however, this is a narrative that was developed in Washington, and without the involvement of Congolese people. If we had involved local voices earlier, we might have recognized the potential harms of policies which have ended up putting thousands of people out of work – and might have also recognized how difficult supply-chain monitoring actually is.

10:23: Hooray, it’s personal anecdote time! Aw, Laura had a “delightful chat” with a bishop who asked her to be a “voice” for the Congolese, and now it’s a teachable moment about how we should listen DIRECTLY to Congolese voices and stop claiming to speak for them.

10:27: Hmm, apparently part of the panel thinks the conference is “off the record and not for attribution.” Not what the announcement says, suckers!

10:31: Money quote: “If it’s about U.S. consumers, please don’t call it a Congo strategy.”

10:33: Panelist wonders “when will we hold the mining companies responsible for what they have done,” in the same way that Holocaust survivors have held companies involved with the Nazis responsible through the courts for their involvement in the Holocaust.

10:35: Rachel Strohm has left the building. The room somehow seems dimmer.

10:36: Laura: Congo needs stronger institutions and rule of law. Period.

10:36: Apparently Congo is not a howling wilderness, there are sectors where things work. Laura suggests that we look at places in Congo that are pretty well governed, like Lubumbashi and Butembo, to draw lessons from them about how they collect revenue and get their institutions to work. More generally, security sector reform is a necessary precondition. The country needs to have all of its territory under its control. We need the FARDC to mean something.

10:38: Security sector reform needs to happen throughout the country, not just in the east.

10:39: Oh my my, “It should not be just one organization picking the witnesses for a congressional hearing on these issues.” And the SEC is having a roundtable on conflict minerals, and there should be Congolese voices at that table.

10:41: The floor is now open for questions. Oh sweet Jesus…

10:54: Some questions collected from the audience thus far:

  1. How should we deal with the lack of a willing partner in Kinshasa to undertake security sector reform?
  2. Is Kagame Hitler reincarnated?
  3. Will Dodd-Frank’s transparency requirements help with pursuing accountability for mining companies?
  4. Who is Kabila’s REAL father?
  5. Is the war in Congo Bill Clinton’s fault?
  6. Does “ICC” stand for “Injustice Colonial Court”?
  7. What are other African countries doing for Congo? We can say that the problems came from the West, but what are we doing to move forward from there, as Africans?

10:58 Panelist response: If you are an advocacy organization and you are caught between wanting to discuss the role of Rwanda in the conflict in Congo, and your sympathy for the Rwandan genocide, then you are compromised.

10:59 “The DRC actually has gone through security sector reform before, in the 60s.” Good point.

11:03: Internet is glitching out and there are no muffins. Oh the humanity…

11:05: Panelist discusses civilian review boards that oversee police in the U.S. Says wants an equivalent “civil society review board” for security sector reform in Congo.

11:06: Laura points out the African Union’s “tradition of not holding leaders accountable for their behavior” (see, e.g., Libya, Côte d’Ivoire), argues that accountability has to come from citizens of African states.

11:06: Laura says the blame game needs to stop in order to move forward. “No one is going to say that Belgian colonization was good for the Congolese people.” Um, didn’t Newt Gingrich say that in his PhD dissertation?

11:08: Another panelist pushes back. Blame is important, because opposite of blame is impunity.

11:09: Laura says she’s not pro-impunity, she just wants to focus on options that will allow “the woman who has been raped to safely return to her community,” rather than just allowing blame to dominate the conversation.

11:13: Floor is open again. Ruh-roh.

11:15: Love of god, why are there no muffins at this event?

11:17: Have we mentioned we’d really go for a muffin about now?

11:18: Question from the peanut gallery: Is the U.S. only interested in the rape story? Without it, would Congo drop off the foreign policy agenda entirely?

11:25: Panelist: for the love of god, don’t call your congressional reps and tell them you want them to “be more engaged”. That’s how you get Africom!

11:27: All we’re saying is, we were promised muffins.

11:30: Laura on how we can use democratic and diplomatic levers. There are opportunities, and we’ve missed a big one in the lead-up to the 2011 elections. Kabila is not that interested in SSR, but he is interested in reelection. We missed a big opportunity to support the elections in a way that promoted security sector reform. However, 40% of the DRC’s budget comes from foreign donors, so there are still opportunities there to put pressure on Kabila for SSR.

11:31: Laura raises a troubling concern: “What’s going to happen when Kabila wins with 25 or 30% of the vote?”

11:34: Laura notes that there are a broad variety of Congolese civil society organizations, covering all possible issues. They are smart, and motivated. However, they aren’t necessarily covering the “hot” issues, like rape or conflict minerals, so no one listens to them.

11:36: Another panelist takes up the same point. The NGO-partnership model mutes the conversation. “If I’m partnered with Enough, and I come to DC, then I am going to say what they want me to say, because my livelihood depends on it.” And everyone else gets ignored.

11:41: Question from the audience: if the U.S. doesn’t have interests in Congo, then why, according to Professor Erlinder, was the plan to invade formed in Virginia? (Panelists look bemused.)

11:44: Laura, responding to a question about what are the true root causes of the war in the Congo, asks “which one?” She notes that “the DRC wars are entangled, but they’re distinct.” She emphasizes, however, that state fragility contributes to all of it and that questions over land rights and citizenship continue to cause conflict.

11:48: Another panelist following up on Laura’s remarks: Conflict in the Congo is “overdetermined.” Ha!

11:52: Wow, audience NOT happy with Laura’s remarks about the need to resolve the citizenship status of Congolese of Rwandese origin in the Kivus. She said that there would not be peace until their status was clarified, and the room erupted in shouts of “no! no!” from Congolese audience members.

11:57: Ugh, we are SERIOUSLY due for a post on head of state immunity. Sorry, team “hold Kagame accountable in the U.S. courts”, no dice.

11:58: It’s over. Muffin time!

Congo Advocacy Hits New Low

Sweet Jesus, people.  Sometimes, you think you’ve seen everything in the way of badvocacy and then along comes six minutes of rape porn masquerading as informed activism.

Yeah, you read that right.  The latest Congo-themed assault to my efforts at maintaining a healthy blood pressure is a short called “Unwatchable” (to which I’m omitting a link on account of intense disapproval) that reimagines the violence in the Eastern DRC as atrocities visited on wealthy British people.

Because clearly, the reason conflict persists in the region is that no one has been forced to think: “How would I feel if these were pretty blonde teenagers being gang-raped by soldiers?”  (And man is PETA going to be upset that they never thought to produce a video showing Pamela Anderson being skinned and turned into a coat…)

The video is part of an independent conflict mineral campaign aimed at generating pressure on UK mobile phone manufacturers to stop using minerals sourced in the Congo.  It appears to be affiliated with Save the Congo, which ought to be embarrassed to be associated with this nonsense.

Setting aside for now my disagreement with the claims underlying conflict mineral focused Congo advocacy in general (although if you want a refresher, see “Is My Cell Phone Full of Rape, Redux“), the particular link this campaign draws between rape and cell phones is completely illogical. From their FAQ:

Q. What is the link between the minerals and the use of rape as a weapon of war in DRC? 

A. Running a rebel group is a costly business. In DRC armed groups rely on Congo’s easily appropriable and highly valuable natural resources to finance their insurgencies, which the rich world has a capacious appetite for. Hence mines or mineral trade routes (where they can extort money from miners) are key targets for the armed groups. To gain access to these rich mining areas or roads, regional national armies or their proxies lay siege and rape as many as possible until the whole village packs and leave. Rape is cheaper and much more effective than guns or bullets. If armed groups were to raid a village and force the population to leave by shooting at them, NGOs could be alerted and the UN would have to react. However if they lay siege to or raid a village and then rape as many as they can, regardless of how loud the women scream or cry its less likely that NGOs could hear them and therefore less likely that the UN would intervene.

W…T…F…?  Rape is cheaper and much more effective than guns or bullets??? No.  Rape is not a “cheap” coercive strategy.  It’s time-consuming and it exposes the perpetrators to injury and potential STD infection. Armed groups absolutely use it anyway, but not because it’s cheaper than bullets.

And, [i]f armed groups were to raid a village and force the population to leave by shooting at them, NGOs could be alerted and the UN would have to react??  This is surely news to the scores of NGOs, both local and international, who have worked tirelessly to document and publicize the use of rape as a weapon of war throughout the last decade and a half of conflict in the region.

Look, I realize that grassroots activism often plays a fundamental role in political change, and has been particularly important to the history of the human rights movement, but seriously, this “the news made me sad / I can haz NGO?” nonsense has got to stop.  Time to invoke Amanda’s “Love Actually Test” on a wider scale, I think.

I have to go take a sedative and lie down now.

Continuing Conflict Mineral Confusion

I know I’m late to the party on this David Aronson/Dodd-Frank kerfuffle, but I have to say that I’m still really baffled by some of the arguments being tossed around. 

First of all, as I’ve said in the past, I’m not at all clear on what the legislation is actually supposed to do.  I get that the short answer is “provide transparency in the mineral supply chain in the DRC.”  And that sure does sound like a nice thing to have.  But then what?  It seems like the theory is that once the transparency is created, no one will buy minerals from mines that are under the control of armed groups, which will cut off mining revenue as a means and motivation to continue the conflict, and hasten said conflict’s end.  But even assuming that the factual assumptions underlying that logic are correct (e.g. that minerals are fueling the conflict, and that cutting mineral revenue would end it), it seems to me that it’s a fairly brutal method of conflict-ending, no?  People work in those mines.  They rely on them for survival.  Is there a scenario in which shutting them down does not have a devastating effect on extremely vulnerable people?  (The same people, in fact, that this whole shebang is supposed to be helping in the first place?)  Should we take the same attitude towards all other economic activity that is “taxed” by armed groups?  Or is this policy mechanism limited to economic activity that’s linked to hipster toys like iPhones?

Second of all, I don’t understand advocates’ insistence, in response to criticism like Aronson’s, that “[t]he Dodd-Frank legislation in no way mandates or supports a real or de facto embargo on minerals exports from eastern Congo.” (That’s from Jason Stearns, who I’m quoting because he stated it so clearly, but he’s by no means alone in such thoughts.)  I understand that the law doesn’t specifically mandate a ban.  But a law’s specific provisions, and its effect on actual behavior, are never the same thing – and there was no reason to expect that they would be in this case.  For one thing, if Dodd-Frank is not meant to have a de facto embargo effect on conflict minerals, along the lines of what I outlined in the paragraph above, then what is it supposed to do?

And moreover, how could it not have such an effect?  Minerals are commodities.  They are priced as commodities.  Congolese-sourced “three Ts” are not, to my knowledge, boutique luxury items that command a premium in the marketplace because of their exotic sourcing.  So, when Dodd-Frank raises their cost – both directly, by imposing the costs of making the supply chain transparent, and indirectly, due to the risk of massive securities-law penalties if the transparency isn’t handled correctly – that makes them a much less attractive product than minerals from elsewhere that come with no such costs

A hypothetical example, to illustrate my point:

Tantalum dealer: Welcome to Crazy Bob’s House of Tantalum!  What can I do you for today?

Electronics manufacturer: I would like to buy some tantalum, please.

Tantalum dealer: You’re in luck!  Today you have two tantalum options.  House Blend Tantalum for $100 per pound, or Premium Great Lakes Tantalum for $110 per pound.*

Electronics manufacturer: What is the difference between them?

Tantalum dealer: There isn’t one!  They are exactly alike in purity, quality, and all other substantive attributes.  However, the “Premium” variety costs more up front, because we have to spend a lot of money to ensure the transparency of the supply chain in order to comply with U.S. securities laws.

Electronics manufacturer: I’m sorry, what was that about “securities laws”?

Tantalum dealer: Oh, did I forget to mention that?  If we didn’t do a good job clearing up the supply chain, your company will be on the hook for a massive, costly SEC investigation and fines.  So, how much do you want to order?

Electronics manufacturer: So, let me get this straight: my options are regular tantalum that does not cost extra and does not carry a risk of major regulatory investigation, or tantalum that is in no way better but costs extra and does come with all that risk?

Tantalum Dealer: Correctamundo!

Electronics manufacturer: 10 pounds of House Blend please.  And maybe you can just put a note in my file that I am never, ever, under any circumstances, to be sold the other stuff?  I’m not touching that Great Lakes stuff with a ten-foot pole.

Tantalum Dealer: But where is your commitment to buying from this region? Why don’t you care about Africans?

Electronics manufacturer: I have a commitment to my shareholders to not incur unnecessary costs or risks.  It’s too bad about Africa, but don’t worry – I’ll send a donation to Bono to make up for it.

Tantalum dealer: Thanks for shopping at Crazy Bob’s!  Please come again!

And I’m not even going to bother getting into the whole “illicit armed groups have an advantage in the illicit trade that is likely to result” issue, because that’s hardly news. *Cough* war on drugs *cough* also basically every other illicit trade ever *cough cough cough.*

So, to sum up: I understand why transparency would be nice.  And I’m certainly all in favor of conflict ending, rule of law being established, and all that good stuff.  But I’m not at all convinced that Dodd-Frank, as a means towards those ends, will do more good than harm.

What am I missing?

*Prices totally made up.  If you want to know what Tantalum really costs, call Crazy Bob yourself.

WTF Friday, 8/19/11

Deja vu! Rachel Weisz playing a “gutsy truth seeker” in an upcoming film. When will she break this typecast and play a cowardly lie finder?

Hahaha “soft adventure.” This does sound lovely, though. And “exotic.” And “magical.” And you get to watch “minorities trade their goods.” Sick.

I think this is the only article on the Internet that refers to the DRC as the “African Congo.” Anyway I’m really looking forward to the match.

Is My Cell Phone Full of Rape, Redux

A bunch of y’all asked me what I thought of The Atlantic’s “Is Your Cell Phone Fueling Civil War in the Congo” article on Monday. To which I reply: About the same thing I’ve thought every other time an article with a virtually identical title has popped up in my “rape and lions” Google News Alert over the last couple of years.

Seriously guys, it’s like déjà vu all over again. The article begins:

“Pick up any household electronic — a phone, a remote, or a laptop — and it could contain minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country where armed rebel groups connected with crimes of rape and murder profit from trade of these minerals.”

Sound at all familiar? No? Let’s take a little trip back in time…

The day:  June 26, 2010.  The man: The Kristof.  The paper:  The New York Times.  The article:  “Death by Gadget in the Congo”:

“An ugly paradox of the 21st century is that some of our elegant symbols of modernity — smartphones, laptops and digital cameras — are built from minerals that seem to be fueling mass slaughter and rape in Congo.”

Oh come off it, you might be thinking. Two pieces on the same topic beginning with similar words does not a federal case make.

And you may have a point, but then again, there’s:

The Hawaii Independent in December 2010: “Is your new mobile phone made with conflict minerals?“;
The Guardian in August 2010: “‘Conflict minerals’ finance gang rape in Africa“;
The Washington City Paper, in June 2010: “Does Your Ipod Support Rape in the Congo?“;
CNN, December 2009: “Rape and murder, funded by cell phones“;
The Star (Canada) in June 2009: “Rape, war and your cell phone“;
Huffington Post in April 2009: “Congo Violence Fueled By Common Material In Cell Phones, Laptops“; and
The Telegraph in November of 2008: “How the mobile phone in your pocket is helping to pay for the civil war in Congo.”

And that’s just the results of a quick 5 minutes of googling. So if the Atlantic article is the first intimation you’ve had that your cell phone might not have been completely honest with you about its past, congratulations on coming out of that coma / returning safely from that space mission / escaping that underground bunker.

I just don’t have much to add to what I, Amanda, and others have said on this subject previously, but I suppose I’ll say it again anyway:

Yes, armed groups operating in the eastern Congo fund their activities in part through the sale of minerals that are used in the manufacture of consumer electronics. And yes, those armed groups are implicated in horrific atrocities against the civilian population of the region. But so are armed groups that aren’t heavily involved in the mineral trade. There’s no evidence that attacks on civilians are either more intense or more concentrated in areas associated with mining or supply routes. And I remain unconvinced that competition over mineral wealth is a primary driver of the violence. The roots of this conflict lie in contested claims over land and citizenship rights, which have become further entrenched by the impact of regional geopolitics. So yes, we would all prefer that our shiny new gadgets arrived free of associations with bloodshed and sexual violence, but we shouldn’t expect that removing our link to it will have much effect on the conflict itself.

Man, even I’m sick of hearing me talk about this…

Things That Make Us Say "Gah"

We know we probably shouldn’t read The Washington Times. It is, after all, characterized by barely-edited histrionic nonsense.

But sometimes people send us stuff, and sometimes we read that stuff, and that’s how we find ourselves here, reading an article titled “Congo a country of rape and ruin.” Sigh.

Let’s run down our checklist of must-haves for reportage from the Sucking Vortex, shall we?

  1. Article title referencing rape: check.
  2. Multiple instances of the word “impunity”: check.
  3. Discussion of husbands who repudiate raped wives: check.
  4. Interview with child victim of rape under the age of 10: check.
  5. Inclusion of photograph and full name of aforementioned child rape victim: check and check.

We didn’t think we’d have to go back over this, but seriously, publishing the name and photo of child victims of rape is not cool. Not cool according to journalistic ethics, and not cool according to child protection standards. Seriously, if this article were a person, it would be a dude with a mullet, a neck tattoo of the Confederate flag, and halitosis. Wearing a t-shirt that says “I don’t trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn’t die.” Crying into his Natty Ice. Not cool.

Anyhoodle, if you’re looking for something to read about rape in the Congo that will leave you feeling a little less murdery, we recommend Chuck Sudetic’s write-ups of the work of a mobile court in Kamituga over at the Open Society Foundation’s blog. Nuanced coverage of a complicated issue FTW!