Students gathered outside Tommy Trojan on Wednesday afternoon to raise awareness about violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and to petition the university to release a statement against conflict minerals, which are mined under conditions of conflict or human rights abuse. The event was sponsored by Jewish World Watch and the Political Student Assembly and organized by USC STAND Against Genocide.
Ethnic tensions and violence over land disputes have been responsible for the uprooting of millions of lives in the Congo region for decades, yet details about the scope and depth of the conflict are still unknown to the general public.
“There is still a serious gap between the severity of the conflict and the knowledge that we have about it here,” said Francesca Bessey, the administrative director of USC STAND. “A lot of people simply don’t know that there is a conflict, that millions of people have been killed either through violence or displacement.”
Bessey said the goal of the petition was not to shame companies, but was instead meant as “positive reinforcement” to encourage companies to be aware of the conflict and their actions shaping it. The petition asks USC to release a statement certifying that the campus is conflict mineral-free as well as to express support for the conflict-free business initiatives already underway.
“Our unique power is that we are students at universities, which are big name consumers and investors, so we do have influence over the business world, particularly if this happens in conjugation with other universities,” she said.
Students at the rally said it was important for people to be aware of the issue so that they could be more mindful about the statement their purchases were making.
“Consumers are indirectly helping fund this conflict, so it’s not like other international issues where you feel like you can’t do that much — your purchasing choices have a direct influence,” said Erica Behrens, a sophomore majoring in international relations.
Not all students, however, were supportive of the rally’s efforts. Sneha Chug, a freshman majoring in business administration who travels frequently to the DRC, warned against making sweeping generalizations about the Congo, saying that such blanket statements cloud the issue and hurt indigenous business. She stressed the conflict is mostly limited to the eastern region of the country, where a shared border with Rwanda has created tensions that frequently result in violence.
“The issue is that around the world they are declaring the entire country, and preventing trade with the entire country,” Chug said. “So essentially you’re hurting the north, south, west and central portions of the country.”
Chug also said that though there are illegitimate mining operations in the country, there are also legal operations that provide gainful employment that are being hurt by negative press and sanctions arising from the labeling of the country as a conflict zone.
“I have no problem with increasing accountability, but with an understanding that increased accountability leads to either increased costs or corruption,” she said.
Bessey said that USC STAND is not advocating a boycott of all mineral imports from the Congo, but rather a redirectment of foreign investment away from conflict mines to legitimate operations so that the people of the Congo get a share of the wealth generated from their natural resources.
She said several organizations in the DRC have been working to establish and implement a certification process for mines to determine which are legitimate and conflict-free. Investment could then be directed toward these mines, ensuring that business remains within the DRC.
“The problem is that the legitimate businesses don’t have financial support right now, because many companies are still in business with the warlords,” Bessey said. “This may increase costs in the short term, but once violence stops being profitable, the market will correct itself.”