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Minerals fuel violence in Congo

Background

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the largest country in sub saharan Africa, with a population of around 75 million.

The country has suffered from exploitation and conflict since the 1870s – first as the private  fiefdom of King Leopold II of Belgium and the as a belgian colony; independence in 1960 was followed by internal conflict aggravated by foreign interference and the assassination of the elected Prime Minister. Dictator Mobuto took power in a coup in 1965 and later renamed the country Zaire; propped up by the US and other western powers ostensibly as a bulwark against communism, he presided over human rights abuses and endemic corruption.

In the First Congo War, 1996-97, Hutu militia that had fled Rwanda following the civil war and genocide joined forces with Zairan armed forces fought against ethnic Tutsis and Rwandan and Ugandan forces in eastern Zaire; Mobuto was overthrown and the country renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 1998 factionalised rebel movements supported by numerous foreign countries started the Second Congo War; which ended in 2003 following UN intervention and a peace accord.

The violence and conflict has continued, with armed rebellions and fighting between former rebel factions and ethnic groups. Neighbouring countries, particularly Rwanda, arm rebel groups and use them to gain control of mineral resources. Killing of civilians, destruction of property and rape as a weapon are widespread.  The death toll is estimated at anywhere between 1 and 6 million – mostly due to disease and famine as a result of conflict and displacement.

Today

The violence is fuelled by the battle for control of Congo’s valuable mineral deposits.

Armed groups are present at more than half of mining sites, often affiliated with rebel groups or with the Congolese National Army – both use rape and violence to control the local population. At many sites, armed groups illegally tax, extort, and coerce civilians to work. Miners, including children, work up to 48-hour shifts amidst mudslides and tunnel collapses that kill many.

The minerals are smuggled through neighbouring countries such as Rwanda or Burundi, passing through the hands of numerous middlemen to East Asian processing plants before entering the manufacturing process of many everyday products.

The UK and other western governments support ‘strong man’ leaders in Rwanda and Uganda who are implicated in perpetuating the violence in the Congo. And UK companies are at least indirectly involved in the use of conflict minerals.

In the US, the conflict Minerals Section 1502 of the US Dodd-Frank Law recently came into effect, requiring companies who use key minerals from Congo to disclose their sources and the measures they are taking to ensure that the minerals purchased do not fuel conflict.

Conflict minerals, as defined in these regulations are:

  • Tantalum –from the metal ore coltan, used in production of high-performance capacitors, components in hearing aids and pacemakers, airbags, GPS, ignition and anti-lock braking systems, laptop computers, mobile phones, video game consoles, digital cameras.
  • Tin – tin cans, soldering for circuit boards, PVC manufacture.
  • Tungsten (4%) – a very dense metal used in golf clubs, metalworking tools, drill bits, vibration mechanism of mobile phones.
  • Gold – jewellery, dentistry, electronics.

Often called ‘TTTG’ or ‘the 3Ts + gold’.

The effects of the US regulations are mixed. As well as raising the profile of the issue, there is some evidence of improvements as more mines became subject to oversight and conflict-free certification status. But there has been an increase of smuggling caused by DRC President suspending artisanal mining, and a drop in demand has harmed the local economy and pushed people into armed groups instead of mining.

A coalition of 59 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is calling for the EU to build on momentum generated by initiatives like the Dodd-Frank Act’s conflict minerals provision and pass a strong law to prevent European businesses fuelling conflict and human rights abuses through their purchases of natural resources, such as tin, gold and diamonds. Draft legislation is due to be published by the European Commission by the end of 2013.

But Initiatives to solve the issue of conflict minerals will be insufficient on their own to bring peace to the region.

Further reading:

Report on the Dod-Frank Act

Report on the effectiveness of the measures

Global Witness report on new EU Law on Supply of Conflict Minerals

UPF report on conflict minerals on the Congo

Report on the ‘Fairphone’ ethical Smartphone launched 20 Sept 2013.

(Reporting by Mike Cooper and Lance Gardiner)

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