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Blood diamonds, conflict minerals and chocolate

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Ellen J. Kennedy
Ellen J. Kennedy is executive director of World Without Genocide, a human rights organization headquartered at William Mitchell College of Law, St. Paul.
Photo Courtesy of Ellen J. Kennedy

I love chocolate.  I never thought about where it comes from until I read about the situation in the Ivory Coast, source of most of the world's chocolate.

Three months ago there was a presidential election in Ivory Coast. The incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, lost.  He refused to step aside and let winner Alassane Outtarra take office. The international community, including the United Nations Security Council, unanimously endorsed Ouattara as the victor and called on Gbagbo to step down. Instead, Gbagbo has organized mercenary forces from neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone to attack U.N. troops there to support Ouattara.

This story goes much deeper than a failed election in a failed state.  At the heart of this conflict is a bitter, decades-long fight over precious resources. The result is environmental degradation, rape, child soldiers and human slavery.

This is a story repeated in other parts of the world -- conflicts over diamonds (called "blood diamonds" because the gems enter the global market through child labor and horrific brutality against women and girls)  and over the mining and sale of minerals such as coltan, used in every cell phone and many small electronics. And now it's chocolate.

Many nations in the developing world have great resources -- either under the ground, in the form of gold, coltan, diamonds or oil, or on top of the ground, in the form of coffee, timber or cocoa beans.  When the economies of countries rely almost exclusively on exports of raw resources, violence, almost inevitably, is the outcome.

The pattern is clear.  Corrupt leaders make exorbitant sums by pillaging these natural resources. The leaders align with factions dominated and identified by religion, ethnicity, region or national origin. The factions gain power and resource control using weapons bought with money diverted from legitimate purposes -- including international aid -- or from previous conflicts.  

The factions and militias control the resources and the land by driving out or enslaving the local people.  Rather than developing infrastructure or improving living conditions of the population, the revenues generated from the resources are used to buy more weapons and exert greater control, accelerating the cycle of violence. The land and environment are ruined and the entire country collapses into violence, poverty, disease and chaos.

More than 40 percent of the world's cocoa beans come from Ivory Coast.  Six million Ivoirians, or one in three people in the country, rely on cocoa production to survive. Cocoa is the country's biggest foreign-exchange earner.   

For decades after gaining independence from France in 1960, Ivory Coast was an economic leader in West Africa because of the coffee and cocoa industries. President Felix Houphouet-Boigny, in power for more than 30 years, ruled with an open-door policy for migrants and through multi-ethnic coalitions of people from the largely Muslim North. These policies excluded the mostly Christian southerners.  In the late 1980s there was a recession, and cocoa prices plummeted. 

At the same time, the population grew significantly. Today 40 percent of the population of Ivory Coast is under 14 years old. Unemployment, poverty and discontent have bred violence along ethnic, religious and geographic lines. The hardest hit area is the western cocoa-growing region.

Weapons are everywhere, the economy is in shambles, people are polarized, and there is utter impunity for perpetrators of violence. Sexual brutality is widespread because there are no institutions to protect women and girls, to prosecute the offenders or to support the victims. A significant number of girls and women are victims of sexual violence. 

Why is this happening?  Because it can; because the culture of violence from past conflicts permeates the country; and because, when there is abject poverty, people's frustration and anger erupt into violence. And when women have no status, legal protection or no support, gender-based violence can spread like an epidemic. Human Rights Watch recently reported that criminal gangs, militia, police and rebel forces all subject locals to an unrelenting stream of banditry, assault, extortion and the rape of women, girls and even babies. State institutions have failed to prevent violence or to hold perpetrators accountable.    

Tens of thousands of Ivorians have fled to neighboring Liberia, while more than 30,000 are displaced internally within Ivory Coast.  This situation, according to experts at the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, has warning signs of an impending genocide.  Tuesday, March 8, is International Women's Day.  It's a good time to stand up for the safety and rights of women around the globe -- in our own communities and in Ivory Coast.

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Ellen J. Kennedy is the executive director of World Without Genocide, a human rights organization headquartered at William Mitchell College of Law, St. Paul.