From 1885-1908 the Congo Free State was anything but free, as it was the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium. Leopold and his agents exploited the Congo for its rich resources, especially the rubber in high demand for the new automobile. Colonial and industry officials treated the Congolese people as sub-human, cutting off limbs of those who did not harvest enough rubber. An estimated 10 million people were killed during these years.
King Leopold’s savagery would have continued business-as-usual were it not exposed by British Consul Roger Casement and others outraged by the cruelty. Still, the Congo has continued to endure decades of violence and political turmoil over the persistent exploitation of the country’s vast resources. Industries continue to profit from this plunder, largely avoiding international scrutiny and accountability.
Questions of consumer responsibility are raised by cases like the Congo. Were the consumers of rubber goods in Europe and the U.S. at the turn of the century responsible for the brutal rubber companies once they knew about it? How about those with political interests who oversaw the industries? Fortunately, once known, the international community took responsibility to change the system.
What do we know about the way in which our goods are produced today? In this age of information overload, how much do we choose to know, and what do we do with that knowledge? Will companies continue to exploit the resources and labor of countries like the Congo unless they are held accountable by consumers?
Citing the failure of the international community to respond to documented human rights abuses like child slavery and widespread rape, the United Church of Christ in 2011 passed a resolution calling for its members to advocate on behalf of “millions of victims of the scramble for Congo’s resources.” The resolution reminds us that in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
So once we know, what can we do? First, we should insist that governments and businesses avoid policies and practices that do injustice and violence to others. In 2012 the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission set new rules requiring companies to verify that the minerals used in their products are “conflict-free” – meaning they don’t help finance violence in places like the Congo. However, certain business and industry groups are suing the government to overturn those rules. We can make sure Congress keeps and enforces critical regulations like these.
Just as importantly, we must be responsible for our personal actions as consumers. Some of the Congo’s minerals most in demand are those used in high-tech industries. When making the decision, for instance, about which cell-phone or gaming device to buy, we can choose to make informed choices and purchase from companies that make good-faith efforts to ensure their products are “conflict-free.” One resource to refer to is the Conflict Minerals Company Rankings produced by the Enough Campaign:
The next time you exercise your power as a consumer, consider the true cost of what goes into your purchase, and who ends up paying the most for it.
The United Church of Christ has more than 5,154 churches throughout the United States. Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation. UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.