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  • Hazel Montgomery-Walsh

Human Rights, First? Questioning the Motive of Big Power Politics in Human Rights Discussions Regarding the DRC

Mineral-rich central Africa becomes a focal point in US-China tug of war.”

The Congressional hearing on China and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on November 14th, 2023 shined a light on a classic understanding of United States-China relations: according to the United States (U.S.), China is the problem and that’s that. Throughout the hearing, U.S. lawmakers–finding a rare moment of common ground in our polarized political climate–bashed China for perpetuating human rights abuses and child labor through its cobalt mines in the DRC. Are conservative U.S. lawmakers really upset with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for its human rights abuses, or are they simply sour that Freeport-McMoRan, a U.S.-based mining company, sold all of its shares in the extremely profitable cobalt sector to China? Cobalt, a resource with its largest reserves buried under the ground in the DRC and thought to be worth up to $24 trillion in exploitable resources, is a massive acquisition for China. Of the 71% of the world’s cobalt mined in the DRC, almost all of it goes to China’s tech industry for the development of Electric Vehicles (EVs). It is estimated that as the climate crisis worsens and the need for EVs goes up, the demand for cobalt will only increase. Cobalt is all and well for creating clean, green technology. However, the major focus has been on human rights abuses caused by its extraction. It is not moral to sacrifice one for the other–a clean future for human rights. Thus, it is critical to understand what the global narrative is around who is to blame for DRC abuses in order to get closer to real solutions.

Cobalt mining site in the DRC. 

Hypocrisy is not at all foreign to outrages Americans. From disillusioned college students, angry at politicians who say “All Lives Matter” and then let innocent children die at the hands of military-grade assault rifles, to condemning other nations for their climate change contributions while the U.S. remains the second-largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, to a nation claiming “Freedom and Justice for All” but built by enslaved people. Hypocrisy is built into our very Constitution. As the U.S. condemns China’s perpetuation of child labor in the DRC, meanwhile, New York Times author Hannah Dreier notes that approximately 300,000 migrant children undertake forced labor in the U.S. Further, where are the congressional condemnations for the Swiss-run company Glencore, which has recently had to agree to pay $1.6 billion in fines for bribing DRC officials, and whose mines also rely on child labor

While the West goes crazy in placing blame on China, trying to undermine its global rise to power, where are the callouts for the impacts of Belgian colonization on today’s situation in the DRC? There is no doubt that the state of corruption and violence in the DRC, linked to strife over its precious resources, is linked to a devastating history of colonization. Under Belgian rule, when Congolese miners did not meet daily quotas, their limbs were amputated. They were enslaved, kidnapped, and mutilated. Stripped of its resources and humanity, the Congo was left with exploited land, abused citizens, and the task of creating a brand new government. Further, the current conflict on the DRC-Rwanda border has roots in Belgian colonization. Belgium, which interrupted the previous peaceful coexistence of the Tutsi and Hutu and Rwanda, has largely escaped blame for their role in the Rwandan genocide and the resulting overflow of refugees into the Congo. Today, ethnic conflict between Rwandan minorities in the DRC and DRC groups revolves around limited access to precious resources and has its roots in colonization. Belgium left a legacy of violence in the DRC, yet its name is never mentioned in discussions surrounding the DRC’s violent rebel groups and ethnic conflicts. Let’s also remember that when the U.S’s Freeport-McMoRan sold its share in cobalt mines to the PRC, it wasn’t exactly a saint. Instead, Congolese people and miners say that completely pulling out of the industry is not the solution. Conversely, it diminishes a crucial form of employment for local Congolese workers. The U.S. may now be able to avoid connection to cobalt extraction and child labor, but it has proposed no new solution for creating a better system.

None of this is to say that the PRC is not at fault for human rights abuses in the DRC. On the contrary. The PRC has–by far–the largest international control over Congolese cobalt–even more than the Congo has. Though efforts have been made to formalize the mining sector in the DRC, meaning streamlining the industry to enforce regulations, these efforts have not tackled the issue of child labor associated with artisanal (local) mining sites. Instead, they shift the risk away from large companies and onto local Congolese, creating flexible wages and labor regimes. Further, the current Congolese state auditor, under President Tshisekedi, has demanded $17 billion more from China for an infrastructure settlement made in 2008. The original agreement, made under previous President Kabila, stipulated the DRC give China a 68% stake in the copper mine company, called Gecamines, in exchange for $3 billion in infrastructure projects from China. However, since then, the current DRC administration has re-evaluated–and noted the extremely unfair trade-offs in favor of China. The state auditor requested major investment increases and to allocate a greater share of the workforce spots on infrastructure projects to Congolese. Meanwhile, China refuses demands for more investment–calling the situation a “win-win”

Clearly, China is a major–if not the main–part of the problem. And yet, where was the Congressional backlash when the U.S. was part of these mining companies? The answer is nowhere–or at least not from deeply conservative U.S. politicians. For them, the criticism of China’s human rights abuses stems from a U.S. fear of China gaining world power. However, the data shows that African workers living near Chinese mining sites have an overall disapproving view of these sites. There’s no clear indication that China’s foreign direct investment in Africa is even making them more likable in the eyes of African nations. 

Perhaps it's time to challenge the narrative. While we continue to uphold the pillars of the U.S.--human rights and human dignity–we must do so not only by calling out bad actors but also by investing in effective and ethical solutions. To do so, the U.S. should engage with the locals, with the Congolese, and with the people–instead of spending hours with superfluous criticism of China. 

“The Congo Problem Is a World Problem.”


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