Conflict Minerals in the DRC: Why Western Legislation Isn’t the Only Answer

The situation in the DRC is incredibly complicated. The solutions will need to be just as sophisticated says Marie Lamensch.
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April 10, 2014

At a recent conference titled, “A Conflict of Interests: Canadian Mining in the Congo” organized by STAND McGill, the most debated topic of the day was the role and impact of U.S. and Canadian legislation in curbing violence caused by so-called conflict minerals in the Great Lakes Region of sub-Saharan Africa. These sentiments beg the questions of whether national legislation is actually having an effect on Congolese people or whether it is simply making companies and consumers feel better about their behaviour.

One common misconception about the cycle of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is that it is caused, in part at least, by conflict minerals. However, it is important to understand that the illegal exploitation minerals is an effect of the war. This misunderstanding about the roots of long-standing conflict threatens to lead to flawed responses as to whether action in the United States or Canada can affect the situation on the ground.

So let’s start with the basics.

What has been coined by French historian Gerard Prunier as “Africa’s World War” finds its roots in two successive wars—not to mention its colonial past as a particularly brutal example of heavy-handed Belgian colonialism. In 1996, Rwanda invaded the eastern DRC to oppose extremist Hutu militias responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide who had fled there. Aided by Rwanda, Congolese rebels led by Laurent Kabila took the opportunity to end the reign of Joseph Mobutu—who had been in power since 1965. The strategic alliance between Rwanda and Kabila was short-lived and the fall out led Rwanda and Uganda to back new rebel groups, this time against Kabila. Nine states ultimately got involved in the war. Widespread insecurity, sporadic violence, and the collapse of state authority in the country’s eastern provinces led to the formation of an array of local, foreign, and now internationally-mandated armed groups. Despite numerous peace deals, talks, and ceasefires between rival factions, peace remains elusive in the eastern DRC. Moreover, the conflict has killed more than 5 million people while there are over 19,000 UN peacekeepers in the country based in Kinshasa with little prospect of them leaving any time soon. At last count, there were at least 30 armed groups and armies that after 20 years of conflict do not seem to know what they are fighting over.

So what role do minerals play in this situation? Although the DRC is one of the poorest places on earth, paradoxically, its soil contains some of the largest deposits of natural mineral resources anywhere—including tungsten, tantalum, tin, gold, uranium, and coltan. But as the UN recognizes, the illicit exploitation and trade of natural resources is “one of the factors fuelling and exacerbating conflicts.” Armed groups and national armies make an estimated total of USD$185 million from the aforementioned minerals and this lucrative business allows them to maintain their murderous activities. To maintain control of the mines, rebel groups commit widespread human rights abuses, including killings, rape, and torture.

In response to these atrocities, governments, international, and regional bodies as well as corporations have attempted to take steps to prevent the presence of conflict minerals in their supply chains. In 2010, the United States passed Dodd-Frank, which, among other things, requires companies to disclose their use of conflict minerals. MP Paul Dewar in Canada also introduced the pro-active Bill 486-4, the Conflict Minerals Act, which would incorporate the guidelines of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development into national law and require Canadian companies to trace the source of minerals and exercise due diligence and transparency during the course of their operations.

This demand-side transparency through national and regional policies is certainly to be encouraged. It is unacceptable for us to use devices that cause oppression and death. However, when drafting this type of legislation, it crucial two consider two things about the DRC.

First, as noted, conflict minerals are an effect of the war and collapse of the state rather than a cause. While de-linking the connection between armed groups and mining is crucial to creating a hurting stalemate in the hope that this brings all sides of the conflict to the table, it is by no means guaranteed. Indeed, armed groups are just as likely to find other non-mineral resources to sustain their murderous activities, be it through illegal taxation or the lucrative timber trade in the region. Beyond foreign-designed policies to legislate the local mining industry, the DRC truly requires internal solutions and mechanisms. This requires that the international community engage an increasing amount of capital and technical assistance to rebuild the dysfunctional Congolese state and put pressure on Kigali to respect the sovereignty of the eastern provinces of the DRC.

The second—and often hidden—consideration with regard to the recent legislation is its effect upon the local population that are the very constituents that laws like Dodd-Frank and the Conflict Minerals Act are attempting to help. Indeed, when the most recent conflagration began, many Congolese turned to artisanal mining as a means of survival as underemployment reaches as high as 81 percent. It is therefore crucial to make sure that legislation to limit the use of minerals from the region does not backfire and hurt the very stakeholders that they are trying to help. Where the Canadian bill seems to get it right is where Paul Dewar emphasises the need to collaborate with governments, Congolese officials, companies, and most importantly perhaps, Congolese civil society groups. A viable solution can only come from a collaboration of several foreign and local actors.

Put simply, the situation in the DRC and other states where minerals are used to fund conflict are incredibly complicated and the solutions will need to be just as sophisticated. As we broach this topic in the media and elsewhere, it is important to realize that Canadian and U.S. legislation on the matter does not represent a panacea and does not replace the need for fairly aggressive politicking and technical assistance programs in the region.