The DRC conflict and Japan

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is arguably the greatest stealth conflict of all time. It is a tragic irony that in spite of the fact that the availability of information about the world is at a level unprecedented in human history, the deadliest conflict since World War II can remain largely unknown to the world at large. This doesn’t say much for the real-world value (in terms of awareness about conflict) of the internet, jet airplanes, satellite videophones and other forms of technology that have supposedly made our world so much smaller.

The media have to take a large portion of the blame for this. The amount of reporting devoted to international news has dropped considerably since the end of the Cold War and regional biases (heavy on the ‘home’ region and almost always very light on Africa) are as pronounced as ever. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Japan. International news in Japanese newspapers accounts for just 1 (sometimes 2) of the roughly 30 pages printed, and Africa is even more neglected in Japan than it is in Western media. The Yomiuri Newspaper devoted just 1.9 percent of its international news to the African continent in 2000 (compared to 6.9 percent in the New York Times – see here for more).

The results are evident in the levels of public awareness of the conflict. In a simple survey conducted by the author in 2008, a class of 151 first year university students were asked a single question “Which armed conflict in the world since the end of the Cold War do you think has been the deadliest?” The top three answers were Iraq (death toll: >500,000?), Kosovo (death toll: 10,000) and Israel-Palestine (death toll: 5,000). Of the 151 students, not a single one could come up with the DRC (death toll: 5,400,000). The results are also evident in government policy. Over the past ten years, the Japanese government has given 47 times more aid to Iraq than it has to the DRC. It is also worth noting that the amount of research produced at Japanese universities about the world’s deadliest conflict is negligible.

All of this is rather odd, given the heavy reliance of the Japanese electronics industry on rare metals – many of which are found in abundance in the DRC (not least tantalum, of which Japan is a major consumer). The issue of rare metals was recently a front-page story on the Japanese edition of the Economist, and campaigns to recycle mobile phones and other electronic devices in Japan for the rare metals inside are taking place around the country. Economically, concern over access to rare metals seems to be of growing importance for Japan.

Some have even referred to the DRC conflict as the ‘PlayStation War’. The peak of tantalum prices in 2000 coincided with the release of Sony’s PlayStation 2. Global shortages in tantalum contributed to the failure of Sony to produce enough consoles to keep up with demand, and at the same time, the boosted demand for tantalum contributed to the violent scramble for the mineral in the DRC. Similarly, when environmental concerns over the use of lead in solder brought about a change in policy in Japan, tin (cassiterite) became the alternative component – contributing to a scramble for cassiterite in the DRC (see this video).

But few in Japan seem to be making the connection between these minerals and the situation in the DRC. Admittedly, the fact that the severely underpaid worker with the shovel digging for coltan (possibly under the barrel of a gun) is removed by some four or five stages (transporting, trading, refining and manufacturing) from the insertion of the tantalum capacitors into the Japanese mobile phones has something to do with this. Coltan changes hands many times before reaching the final consumer, and changes into an unrecognizable form hidden deep within the circuit boards of our electronic devices.

What all this means is that Japan makes for a very challenging environment to make traction in getting the issue of the DRC conflict on the agenda. With so little attention and awareness to begin with, there is not much of a base to build on. But at the same time, the rare metal connection should come in handy in some way in bridging the ‘it doesn’t affect me’ gap.

I have recently been involved in a number of events at Osaka University aimed at raising awareness that have left me with some optimism regarding what can be achieved in breaking the cycle of silence on this and other conflicts. My next post will cover some of these events.

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