Op-Ed: The chip on our shoulders

Thursday, September 22, 2016 - 7:02pm

Though Dr. Denis Mukwege was here at the University of Michigan just yesterday, he won’t be staying long. He has to get back to Panzi Hospital, a tall, tan stucco building in the eastern hills of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There, he will treat rape victims — women and children who come to the hospital following attacks by militia groups that roam the DRC. Mukwege has been working in the region for many years. When he returns from this latest trip to the United States, he may treat not only new women who have been attacked, but also women coming back after a second or third rape. Sometimes he treats the children of women he helped years before.

For attendees at Mukwege’s talk yesterday, this was a rare opportunity to meet a key human rights leader. Mukwege has received countless awards, including our own Raoul Wallenberg Medal in 2010 and a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013. The New York Times called him a “steadying presence among the turmoil” of his region.

All too often, these events on campus with such influential people are used as a “get out of jail free card” when it comes to addressing human rights: Invite a few humanitarian heroes, applaud loudly, get a selfie, go home. What starts as an earnest resolution to do better and be inspired ends in a self-congratulatory pat on the back of the University community. For us to feel worthy of handing out human rights awards and looking up to true humanitarians like Mukwege, a closer look at our own humanitarian record, and ongoing complicity in abuses around the world, is crucial.

It’s far too easy for us to feel both guiltless and powerless in conflicts far from our leafy campus. But the fact of the matter is, as remote, exotic and inhumane as events in the DRC seem to us, our lives are bound to theirs by a thin, fragile slice of metal: our electronics, which are drenched with Congolese blood and heaped with U.S. dollars. When I examine my own life, a series of strange parallels illustrates our complicity. It’s all in the numbers.

On May 1, 1996, I am born; I drool and sleep a lot. In the DRC, the first Congo War starts. U.S. forces and other Western governments installed a dictator decades before, then let him fall when they no longer needed him. In his place came a new leader, an assassination and chaos. And something new — mass rape as an explicit tool of war.

On May 1, 2008, I receive my first cell phone for my 12th birthday; it has a tiny screen and can send and receive texts (that’s about all it can do). It contains tantalum, tungsten and other minerals found in the DRC. Companies like AngloGold Ashanti and Century make deals with violent, abusive militia groups and receive highly favorable mining concessions in return for hard cash. 

And then there are numbers, larger and darker: 50,000 victims treated at Mukwege’s hospital. Five hundred thousand women raped since the Congolese conflict began, according to Human Rights Watch. According to Mukwege, five million Congolese were killed by Belgium during its colonial expansion in the 1800s — half the country’s population.

We cannot rely on our own government to address these problems. That’s what we’ve been doing in the past, and it hasn’t worked. So many of the tenets of “American values,” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, have been thrown out the window when American money was at stake. This is not a hot topic issue, a flash in the American pan. Our connection to these resources makes us responsible, as consumers and as citizens, for this violation of core American beliefs.

There is something we can do. Mining companies’ deals are currently as opaque as a pile of shale, that being, they are most definitely not. But they could be transparent, which would mean they would not be able to make concessions or deals with warlords and rebel militias. They’d have to pay a living wage to their workers in the DRC. They’d have to pay a fair amount for the privilege of getting stinking rich — putting money into Congolese education, hospitals like Dr. Mukwege’s, power lines and roads in the areas they are currently exploiting. We, as American citizens, buying these companies’ products, would know whether the people who built our high-speed, high-tech world were doing the same in Central Africa, or simply breaking the countries down for parts that we deem valuable.

Your voice may seem small, but the University’s isn’t. Speak up, and someone just might listen. Problems do not become intractable until they are met with apathy. Do not let the work of true humanitarians like Dr. Mukwege become compromised by our inaction.

Merin McDivitt is an LSA junior and a Daily Arts writer.