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

An article I wrote for the Canadian International Council

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 acause. 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 needto 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.



Links round-up

Reporting on African conflicts

In “In defence of western journalists in Africa” Michela Wrong defends journalists against those (usually academics) who are quick to criticize the way they report on a conflict, especially in Africa. I think it is pretty well argued. Journalists are not academics and do not pretend to be. They write for a very different, in a different environment, under different restrictions, and for much larger audience.

“More fundamentally, the writers seem to have lost sight of the definition of news, which aims to convey distant events to a non-specialist audience as succinctly as possible. That’s a lot easier to say than do.”

To academics who complain that journalists aren’t more “like them”, presenting the complexity of conflicts in 20 page articles, she answers “We don’t have time, we don’t have space, and anyway, that’s why you guys exist, remember?”

On the same topic: “South Sudan: are western journalists getting it wrong?”, Sterling Carter, The Guardian


Clinton Documents reveal more on US response to Rwandan genocide

The Clinton Presidential Library released new documents shedding light on the Administration’s response to the Rwandan genocide. The memo offers various responses to potential criticism of the US’ lack of response to the Rwandan genocide. The Guardian explains the background story behind the memos.


 America’s most dubious allies

Politico Magazine has an interesting long piece up its website “America’s 25 Most Awkward Allies” which stems from a phrase uttered by Susan Rice ““Let’s be honest,” she said, “at times … we do business with governments that do not respect the rights we hold most dear.” The Obama Administration made it clear from the beginning that it would privilege quite diplomacy to silence or confrontation. The magazine has therefor put together a list of America’s most dubious allies with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia making it on the top of the list. Of course there is also Afghanistan, Iraq and Qatar but also on the list are lesser-known relationships with Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Obama was also the first president to visit countries such as Myanmar and Cambodia.

One of the interesting analysis is the relationship between the US and Rwandan president Paul Kagame. He has been a donor darling ever since he came to power, who commanded the RPF rebel forces during the 1994 genocide. The West, who certainly has reasons to feel guilty about not intervening during massacres, has responded by hailing Kagame as a visionary leader and commending him for allowing Rwanda to start recovering from the genocide in quite a remarkable way. Compared to its neighbours, Rwanda has taken quite an impressive economic and political turn. At the same time, Kagame’s fans are quick to forget that the Rwandan military killed civilians in the DRC and is still providing help to rebel groups, making the Congo one of most dramatic humanitarian crisis today. Kagame will also not hesitate to get rid of his opponents and dissidents in the most brutal ways. He is even very open about it: “betraying Rwanda brings consequences”, he says. He is a dictator but the West keeps portraying him as a progressive leader. As Condoleezza Rice (Former United States Secretary of State) apparently once said “The only thing we have to do is look the other way.” I wonder how long it will last but Kagame is certainly not leaving anytime soon.


The Democratic Republic of the Congo from the perspective of an Ambassador

The United States Institute for Peace hosted Ambassador Roger Meece who shared his perspectives on the DRC, a country that has experienced violent conflict and humanitarian crisis for two decades. As the former head of the U.N. Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Monusco) Meece is in a good position to comment. In this presentation and Q&A, he shares his view on the conflict, the challenges, the regional implications, the UN’s engagement, and what lies ahead for the country.



 Where to with the Responsibility to Protect?

In “R2P: A Norm of the Past or Future?”, Simon Adams, the director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect reflects on the normative acceptance of R2P and the future of the doctrine. Adams acknowledges that the norm remains controversial and sometimes misunderstood. Some see it as an excuse to change a regime or “colonize” a territory, others regard the intervention in Libya and lack of intervention in Syria as a failure of R2P, and yet another group believes that the doctrine is “the fastest developing international norm in history” (emphasis on developing). What it is clear that “the circumstances that gave rise to the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect at the 2005 UN World Summit” have not ceased to exist. Contrary to what many might believe, there is growing acceptance for R2P: four UN Security Council Presidential Statements, more invocations in resolutions since 2011, and 30 countries have now adopted R2P Focal Points. Adams is good at reminding us that it takes time for norms such as R2P to be accepted, for sovereignty not to be seen not only as a right but as a responsibility. He reminds us that it took time to apply the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and there are still challenges 60 years later. “The Responsibility to Protect, like the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is still only as strong as the determination of the international community to uphold its principles. We cannot let future normative progress be a prisoner of the past.”


African Solutions to African Problems

In Long road to an African rapid reaction force, IRIN looks at the African Union’s idea to create creation of a military capable of rapidly deploying to African countries experiencing crisis. “African solutions to African problems,” as one would say. The idea of an African Capacity for Immediate Responses to Crises (ACIRC) came a response to lack of progress made on the creation of the African Standby Force (ASF), which should have been set up by 2010 but was pushed back to 2015. It also came as a response to the fact that France has had to intervene in Mali and in the African Republic to support African troops already on the ground. African states see this as a humiliation. Yet the creation of the ACIRC is very challenging. South Africa and Algeria are all for it but Nigeria, another big power on the continent, isn’t exactly an active supporter. Then there is also the problem of meddling and partisanship (Chad supporting Seleka in CAR? Uganda and Rwanda in the DRC? Uganda’s involved in South Sudan). However, there is hope. In 2013, 75,000 African peacekeepers took part in UN and African missions. What is needed is leadership, organization, coordination and cooperation among the members of the AU.

For another article on the subject: “Africa can solve its own problems with proper planning and full implementation of the African Standby Force” – Institute for Security Studies


Chemical Weapon Agreement…then what?

Just a couple of weeks, the prospect of a military intervention in Syria was high. A week later, things have changed. Most states were opposed to the idea, citing risks, international law and efficiency. Then all eyes suddenly turned to Russia who proposed to put Syria’s chemical stock under international control (ultimately for destruction). Intense negotiations between U.S. and Russian diplomats ensued, finally leading to a breakthrough on Saturday: an ambitious chemical arms-control agreement which involves the inventory and seizing of Syria’s chemical weapons. According to the framework, the Assad regime has week to provide an inventory of its arsenal and international inspectors will be in Syria by November to assess the situation.

But where will this really lead? An end to the civil war? Let me be skeptical here. First, the war continues, with or without chemical weapons. Considering the war has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Syrians, the Assad regime has showed that it kill a lot of people with guns and bombs….Guns don’t kill people, PEOPLE do.

“Things are improving…These here were not killed by chemical weapons” – Côté


Second, what will happen in case of non-compliance? Anything can be expected from Assad. Russia and the U.S. have agreed that violations would be referred to the Security Council but the nature of potential measures against Syria remain undecided and will be decided at the UN. Since nothing is said about penalties, Russia could very well once again use its veto to prevent sanctions and certainly intervention. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, warned that the use of force remains a threat if the deal is not respect. In this case, we would be back to two weeks ago.

Third, the rebellion is completely fragmented and growing more sectarian every week. Two western hostages freed last week described the situation as chaotic and the rebel groups as “midway between banditry and fanaticism.” Detained by the rebels for 152 days, Italian journalist Dominico Quirico said a new movement within Syria: the emergence of gangs of thugs with no code of conduct, who take advantage of the revolution to “take over territory, hold the population to ransom, kidnap people and fill their pockets.” Treated like an animal, he said he found in Syria “a country of evil.”


If the Russian initiative truly works, only the issue of chemical weapons will be solved. Countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia will continue to arm rebels, especially radical Islamists. As Quirico explained, some of these rebel groups only care about money and weapons. At this point, arming the rebels is likely to lead to more conflict, more sectarianism and more human rights violations, especially against minorities such as Alawites and Christians.

While a Syrian resolution on chemical weapons would be significant, it would not end the crisis and world leaders should not feel relieved. This is not a long-term solutions since it does not deal with the root causes of the conflict and the many problems that have arisen since the revolution started. Syrians are still dying.

President Obama’s Atrocity Prevention Board: one year later

In 2011, under Presidential Study Directive-10 (PSD–10), President Obama created the Atrocities Prevention Board. In his landmark speech, Mr. Obama recognized mass atrocity and genocide prevention as “a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” Officially established in April 2012, the board was a major step in the improvement of the United States’ efforts to act “before the wood is stacked or the match is struck.” The creation of this board, particularly in the American context, constitutes a significant step towards the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide.

Last week, the White House published a factsheet summing up the purpose and record of the Board.  But while the creation of the Board must be saluted, one year later I have mixed feelings about the impact of the Board’s efforts as described here. The factsheet appears a little too self-congratulatory and fails to mention shortcoming 

  • The Board as an inter-agency Atrocities Prevention Board: too much bureaucracy?

What the factsheet reveals is that the Board, as an inter-agency body, has created a highly bureaucratic and technical framework responsible for improving our capacity to prevent mass atrocity crimes. Indeed, the body is composed of senior representatives of the Departments of State, Defense, Treasury, Justice (DOJ), Homeland Security (DHS), the Joint Staff, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Office of the Vice President and the National Security Staff. According to its mandate, the Board “coordinates the development of new policies and tools (…) to enhance the capacity of the United States to effectively prevent and respond to atrocities.” Thus within the board’s agencies, new doctrines and tools have been created in the past year.  

But while the Board is responsible for coordinating and prioritizing efforts, could the accumulation of agencies, research and tools, as well as the highly bureaucratic, technical and technocratic character of the Board make timely action and decision-making actually more complex? Although I highly welcome the creation of the board, this is my fear in the long run. This week, I attended a presentation at the Canadian Parliament given by Dr. Mukesh Kapila, the former Head of the UN in Sudan who was abandoned by his peers as the Darfur genocide unfolded. Speaking to parliamentarians and deputies, Dr. Kapila rightfully argued that institutions have lost their human side, and that we have therefore also lost our capacity to hold individuals accountable when they fail to act. Where are the individuals behind the institutions, he asks? This is my fear with the prevention board: that it could be another set of faceless agencies, a complex bureaucratic system that manages problems but does not solve them. As Dr. Kapila argues, institutions, such as the UN, have gotten coward and need to be served by people again.

  •  Policies and tools: from creation to political will to act 

Over the past year, the Board’s individual agencies have undertaken research and created a number of tools and policies responsible for improving the U.S.’ capacity to prevent mass atrocities. These elements include new analytical frameworks, “alert channels”, recommendations about data collections, and best practice handbooks. This is important. Governments, policymakers, military personnel and civil servants should be given the appropriate tools and knowledge to prevent mass atrocities. But when time comes, these tools must also be used. It is one thing to create a set of early warning systems, alert channels or to use new technologies but it is another thing to act once the risk assessment has been made. Management is the minimum requirement, leadership and political will to act are the real tools.

  • Case studies: the good and the bad

The White House factsheet refers to specific cases in which is Board’s has been involved in the past year, including Burma, Kenya, central Africa, and Syria. Some of the more successful initiative include US and UN efforts to address the problem of armed groups in Central Africa, in particular the LRA and the M23 that are perpetrating atrocities. The United States (USAID and the State Department for example) has indeed contributed to peacekeeping capabilities and civilian protection in various ways.

But the picture is less positive elsewhere. According to the fact sheet, “the U.S. Government is playing an important ongoing role in supporting efforts to address violence and protect vulnerable communities” in Burma. But what is actually being done? Two weeks ago, Human Rights Watch published a report clearly condemning ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya in Burma: “The Burmese government engaged in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that continues today through the denial of aid and restrictions on movement.” Reports of human rights violations committed against this Muslim minority have actually been emerging for months. Not only has the Burmese government failed to address these violations but local authorities have also stood by while these crimes were being committed. They are complicit in the violence because they stand by while abuses are being committed. Furthermore, the Burmese government’s attitude towards of Rohingya and other minorities, some of them portrayed as stateless people and illegal migrants, has encouraged and rationalized exclusionary practices and abuses. While Burma has made several efforts in terms of democracy, the world has been quick to lift sanctions in order to develop economic ties with Burma, thereby leaving human rights considerations aside. The US along with the European Union only expressed worries or urged the government to act on human rights issues but nothing else has been done. Just last week, new reports of sectarian violence in western Myanmar emerged again. Why is the Board not acting on these issues when the evidence is clearly there?

The Board’s record in Kenya and Central Africa is more positive. This year’s elections in Kenya were peaceful partly thanks to international efforts in voter education and mitigation of potential election violence. However, the major problem remains is that the elected president Uhuru Kenyatta has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in post-election violence five years ago. One of the Board’s mandate is to combat impunity and promote accountability but Kenyatta’s election throws a shadow over the board’s attempt to deny “impunity to those who commit atrocities, at home.

Finally what about Syria? It remains our biggest failure this year. The international community remains in complete deadlock, mostly because we have been waiting for so long. The Board seeks to “share the global burden, by strengthening multilateral institutions (…)” and states that the “United States is working to build the capacity of the United Nations for atrocity prevention (…).” Yet in Syria the regime is killing hundreds of people every week, especially children. There is no miracle solution now only one that may be less damaging than another. Syria is what happens when “we fail to act preventatively before violence is at full blaze.”

I highly welcome the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board and encourage other countries to do the same.  But we must also guarantee the board a) is governed by people, not of faceless agencies that manage problems instead of solving them, and cannot be accountable b) puts emphasis on successes and shortcomings in order to learn lessons.