Resolving the Conflict Mineral Trade

by Sean Watson

When considering rich countries throughout the world, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) seldom comes to mind. However, the DRC is estimated to have upward of $24 trillion in natural resources, making it one of the world’s most resource rich countries.14 This may seem positive, perhaps providing an underdeveloped region with the economic means to create a high standard of living. The truth of the matter is that the massive mineral resources present have created an environment in which armed groups control a large portion of the lucrative mining trade. They coerce and brutalize civilians into labor and illegally export minerals through Rwanda and Burundi for global consumption. Eventually, the goods lose discernible connections to their violent roots, making regulation and prosecution difficult. The presence of legal mining operations and their importance to the DRC’s economy further complicates the situation, because embargos would harm civilians who rely upon legitimate mining operations for work.

The solution to this problem has been skirted for many years. The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has issued a resolution, and various Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have issued guidelines for monitoring.15, 4 However, these measures have been difficult to enforce. Companies like Apple have pressured their suppliers to responsibly source materials, but the extensive supply chain means even influential companies have little say.1 Global policymakers must ensure that the production and consumption of mineral assets does not contribute to the rule of lawlessness, corruption, and fear that has dominated the Congo.

To comprehend the origins of the conflict mineral trade, one must examine the DRC’s troubled history. The DRC began as a Belgian colony administered solely by King Leopold II.2 He exercised brutal control of the population to exploit the territory for rubber production. Ownership was transferred subsequently to the Belgian parliament, leading to the DRC’s independence in 1961 and the rise of a nationalist party.

Political instability and armed insurgencies inhibit the DRC’s vast resource potential.

Afterwards, a power struggle erupted within the government and a CIA operation placed Mobutu Sese Seko in power and renamed the country Zaire. Mobutu’s regime was deeply corrupt and embezzled billions of public funds.13 The situation worsened following the 1994 Rwandan genocide, setting the stage for a series of massive conflicts surrounding the DRC. Many Hutus fled the newly empowered Tutsi government in Rwanda and settled in Eastern Zaire. Unfortunately, the ethnic tensions leading to previous conflicts remained, and a combination of Hutu and Zaire armed forces attacked Tutsis in the Eastern Zaire region, plunging the two countries into a disastrous war.

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Rwanda aligned itself with Uganda and formed a coalition of forces, the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo-Zaire (AFDL), to attack and take control of Zaire from Mobutu. Led by Laurent Kabila, the forces took control of Zaire. Kabila expelled Rwandan and Ugandan military presence, which led to renewed conflict. Rwandan and Ugandan forces then formed rebel groups, the Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie (RCD) and the Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) respectively, invading the Congo together in 1998 signaling the beginning of the Second Congo War. After intense fighting with casualties estimated at five million people, Laurent Kabila was assassinated and replaced by his son, Joseph Kabila. Joseph’s desire for peace talks and acceptance of foreign involvement helped the country achieve a peace treaty in 2001. In the following years, a demilitarization policy was implemented and a transitional government was put in power temporarily. In 2006, the DRC’s first democratic elections were held and Joseph Kabila was elected president.

In the post-war period, the government faced numerous armed militia groups present from the period of war before, spawning the conditions for guerilla illegal mining operations. These organizations were proxy groups funded by Rwanda, Uganda, or the DRC itself that had since developed their own interests in the situation. In return for peace, many of these guerilla groups were granted amnesty and integration into the formal DRC army, the Armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC).

The disadvantages of this policy were clear when a series of former commanders from the Second Congo War defected from the FARDC to create Congrès national pour la défense du people (CNDP) and the March 23 (M23) rebel groups, both of which have been involved in conflict mining.

Several armed factions, all direct or indirect legacies of the Congo Wars, still exist throughout the DRC and are responsible for violence in the mineral trade. Joseph Kabila, the current president of the DRC, has made many pledges to fight corruption and improve human rights conditions.3 Despite his efforts, the DRC has made little progress. Most importantly, the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu army backed by the Congolese as a proxy force against Rwanda in the Second Congo War, is capitalizing upon the mineral trade by controlling mines. The FDLR makes millions in revenue and is likely richer than the FARDC.8

There has been widespread criticism of the FARDC and Congo Government for the lack of repercussions for suspected war criminals that now serve as officers in the national army. Additionally, the army’s allegiance to government’s control is fractured, which has been demonstrated by several mutines.

Although recent Congolese conflicts were propagated partly along ethnic lines, mineral riches in the east have been similarly instrumental in creating deeply entrenched insurgent groups. The FARDC is one of the most brutal perpetrators of violence in its exercise of control over the mineral trade. It operates in the Eastern region of Kivu by demanding a portion of the money local miners receive from their activity in return for ‘protection,’ and a portion of the materials.The FARDC is made from remnant factions from the Congo Wars and ensuing conflicts.

The FDLR operates in a similar fashion. Both groups use violence to intimidate local populations to work, while committing rape, mutilation, and murder as a consequence of non-compliance.8 Additionally, the fractured nature of the FARDC and FDLR means that several friendly factions cooperate frequently to purport such violence and control territory.

Although minerals originate in the DRC, they are shipped through many countries. The lightly cotrolled borders of Rwanda and Burundi offer an export route. The minerals are also sold from them source through a series of local buyers to a supplier that sells to multinational companies. From multinational mineral companies, the minerals are refined from ore and endure another series of purchases and refinements until fabricated into consumer and industrial goods.

Copper and tin ore are the most commonly mined minerals in the DRC. Copper is used widely for wiring in electronics. Tin is used as solder for electronic boards. Tungsten and Cobalt are also widely mined. Tungsten is used to make drill heads, and various parts of goods that require a hard dense metal. Cobalt is used in the production of alloys for jet turbines in commercial engines. Additionally, 90% of the DRC’s useful gold production is smuggled abroad.

As a result, many consumer electronics likely contain minerals sourced in conflict. However, due to the number of companies involved, lack of transparency, and monitoring difficulties, it is hard to find a definitive culprit in the marketing of electronics. For example, a Tantalum ore originating from Kivu under the control of a local militia may be sold through local businessmen to a multinational smelter such as Ningxia Nonferrous Metals.9 Next, it is converted into pure tantalum and sold to an electronic parts manufacturer. Then the product is turned into a capacitor for a computer, and sold to a chip manufacturer such as Intel. Unfortunately, the quantity of materials and production steps makes discerning agents’ culpability difficult.

Failed solutions to the conflict mineral trade include a UNSC resolution urging all countries to end use of conflict minerals and a UN peacekeeping force. However, this measure lacks clear guidelines for action and capacity for national oversight. Another proposed solution would focus pressure upon countries complicit in smuggling conflict minerals out of the DRC. However, the complex nature of the supply chain provides cover for governments to vehemently deny involvement. The same is true of mining companies: they falsely declare that they only draw from ‘legal’ local suppliers, plausibly denying wrongdoing. In theory, mining companies develop personal relationships with suppliers, and have an idea of whether or not the minerals were responsibly sourced. But in practice, they often buy conflict minerals and look the opposite direction, assisted by poor government oversight and infrastructure.

Another method recommends using domestic laws to target companies using Congolese minerals. The most notable legislation to move toward this goal is the conflict minerals provision within the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of

The armed Forces of Democratic Republic of  Congo [FARDC] soldiers near Gama in 2013. The government’s control over its army is strained.
2010. The provision requires the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to conduct a supply chain audit of any company that requires or uses minerals that have originated in the Congo or surrounding countries for the production of their goods.7 However, the rule does not provide strong guidelines for SEC standards in the audit, nor methods to examine the supply chain.It is unlikely that companies will autonomously report themselves or consent to litigation. It seems more probable that the companies will use the same defenses to deny involvement. Moreover, the provision has also created a sweeping embargo of the mineral trade in the Congo conducted by a few large companies, possibly shifting the effects of conflict mining elsewhere.17 This solution is ineffective because it disrupts legitimate mining operations and displaces violence, rather than decreasing it. It is likely this law will have little affect on the mining of conflict minerals, instead driving the supply chains deeper underground.What is there to be done? It is necessary to tackle this issue from the ground up in order to avoid plausible deniability and the accidental harm to legitimate livelihood-sustaining mining operations. The current suggestions of NGOs and international bodies have relied on a complete audit of the chain, in order to find a weak link. However, this approach is unnecessary because the weak link is clear. It exists in the local armed militias exploiting mines in the Eastern Congo, specifically in regions of North and South Kivu.8The mineral trade is not as prominent in the west while a few legitimate multinational mining companies are in charge of the Southern region of Katanga. However imperfect these businesses may be, they do not brutalize their workers.There are a limited number of operational mines in the Kivu region, many of which are in some way tied to armed groups. Therefore, we know the details of the criminal web. It is more difficult to establish guilt further up the supply chain because the actors are so removed from the crime.
Raw material quantity and production steps makes discerning individual agents’
culpability difficult.
At the stages of production and extraction, there is far less confusion about who is responsible for the abuse of local peoples. For this reason, it is necessary to tackle this issue from the bottom-up. It is seems implausible to prosecute hundreds of mineral companies for links to the congo, much less an international monitoring system of an immense market. Thus, the solution lies in a small-scale audit of selected security and government forces in the DRC via a UNSC resolution, and an increase in UN Peacekeepers to transparently secure individual mine sites in the Kivu region. The proposed solution addresses several key issues. First, it would maintain local legal mining operations by not targeting the miners themselves. If the initial illegal links to the larger multinational corporations are prioritized, it will be possible to find legitimate anchors for the industry. Second, this solution is the most logistically realistic by not requiring massive multilateral oversight, instead focusing on a concentrated source in the DRC. Eventually, control over the operation would be ceded to the DRC. If successfully implemented, the policy would open a massive new field of exploration for legitimate local and international investment, perhaps allowing the DRC to realize its vast potential in natural resources. C

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