Conflict Minerals and Congo’s Brutal War


A man caries cassiterite, a tin product, on his back on the outskirts of Walikale, Congo, Friday, Sept. 17, 2010. Violence in the competition for minerals is spiraling out of control in this corner of DR Congo, where hundreds of victims of a mass gang-rape that drew international outrage include the mother, wife, sisters and cousins of a militia leader whose fighters were among the alleged attackers. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)


By Chris Stephen

After the failure of the United Nations, the International Criminal Court and the protagonists themselves to bring peace to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, human rights groups are hoping for a breakthrough with new US legislation that aims to hit the country’s warlords where it hurts– in the pocket.

Armed groups in eastern Congo are enriching themselves through the sale of gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten which end up in virtually all the computers and cell phones on the planet. Now, a law passed by the US Congress will force all US publicly traded companies to declare trade in Congo’s conflict minerals.

But whether the act delivers peace is a big question, depending on the good will of Congo’s warlords and concerted action by the international community, neither of which has been observed during 14 years of war.

An insight into the horrors of these wars is contained in a draft United Nations report leaked in September which catalogues more than 600 atrocities, ranging from massacres, rape, torture and plunder to cannibalism and ritual slaughter.

Most controversial is its report of massacres of Hutus in eastern Congo by the Rwandan army in 1996 which the authors say may amount to genocide, a finding that has triggered an angry reaction in Kigali.

The draft report says the massacres took place after Rwandan forces (the RPF) invaded Congo ostensibly hunting for Hutus blamed for the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda two years earlier.

The RPF targeted both Rwandan Hutu refugees and Congo Hutus, wiping out villages and chasing Hutus into the forests. In the town of Knigi the report says Hutu civilians were gathered in an Adventist church, then butchered by Rwandan troops with machetes, axes and farmer’s hoes.

This slaughter was the opening act of the First Congo War, which saw Rwandan and Ugandan forces join with Congo rebels to push west and capture Kinshasa, replacing President Mobuto Sese Seko with rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila.

The Second Congo war broke out in 1998 when Kabila turned on his erstwhile allies, accusing Rwanda of plundering Congo for its minerals. With the aid of armies from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, he pushed Rwandan and Ugandan forces back across the Congo River.

Sometimes called Africa’s World War, this second round of fighting lasted five years and saw carnage reach its peak, with more than 25 ethnic militias taking advantage of the chaos for score settling and land grabs.

Rape and terror were principal weapons, and have led UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Armed Conflict, Margot Wallstrom, to label Congo “the rape capital of the world”

The link between Congo’s armed groups and the minerals they export was highlighted in 2002 by a UN panel of experts which said that the scramble for Congo’s resources was the mainspring of the fighting.

Plundering Congo for its raw materials is not new: Belgium’s King Leopold II took personal control of the country in 1885 with the express purpose of harvesting its rubber and timber. Workers were enslaved and frequently mutilated, provoking international outrage.

Congo’s independence from Belgium in 1960 saw fresh battles for resources, with UN troops helping to put down a secessionist rebellion in copper rich Katanga. After Mobutu seized power in 1965, he built a personal fortune estimated in the billions from mineral exports, while allowing the country’s infrastructure to fall apart.

The 2002 UN panel named 85 multi-national companies involved in the conflict minerals trade and recommended sanctions, but after lobbying by member states against it, the UN Security Council took no action.

A similar failure to get to grips with the conflict has come from the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC began investigating Congo atrocities in 2003, with chief prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo warning that companies could find themselves prosecuted if found to be aiding and abetting war crimes.

No such prosecutions have followed, and in seven years the court has indicted just four individuals in Congo, barely scratching the surface and providing neither justice nor deterrent.

This has not been through any lack of evidence. In 2005 Human Rights Watch accused Britain’s AngloGold Ashanti and Switzerland’s Metalor of profiting from gold plundered by militias and the Ugandan army in the north-eastern Ituri region.

In one instance, the rights group said Ugandan troops captured a gold mine north of Bunia, enslaving local miners and then instituting a crash program to increase production that led to a mine cave-in causing the deaths of 100 miners.

Rather than sanction corporations, the UN has placed its hopes on a peace process, orchestrating a ceasefire in 2003 and elections three years later. While this has ended the fighting in the west of the country, violence continues unabated in a broad swathe of territory on Congo’s eastern border.

Here militia groups, many of them proxy forces for Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda, battle each other for control of mining areas, shipping the plundered minerals out through these eastern neighbours.

In Ituri, fighting is dominated by battles between two tribes, the Hema and the Lendu, pitching the Hema-led Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC) battling the Lendu-led Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI), both blamed for serial atrocities.

Adding to Ituri’s instability is the recent arrival in the region of units from Uganda’s rebel Lords Resistance Army (LRA), whose leaders are accused by the ICC of atrocities including the mass abduction, rape and mutilation of Ugandan schoolgirls.

Further south, the provinces of North and South Kivu are dominated by another ethnic war, between the Tutsi-led National Congress for the Defence of the People (CNDP), allied with Rwanda, and the Hutu-dominated Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).

Both groups have a bloodstained reputation: CNDP leader Bosoco Ntaganda is already indicted by the ICC, while the FDLR is led by Rwandan Hutu Major General Sylvestre Mudacumura, blamed for helping to lead the 1994 genocide.

And rape continues to be a powerful weapon of terror. In August, the UN reported three instances of militia units in the Kivu provinces raping more than 500 women and girls, including 242 rapes over four days at the village of Luvungi, an attack blamed on the FDLR.

The Luvungi attack highlighted yet another failure: that of UN peacekeepers.

The UN peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, has 17,000 troops in Congo but they have proven unable to exert their will. A MONUSCO base sits just 20 miles from Luvungi but peacekeepers made no move to intervene.

The common thread running through the failures of the peacekeepers, the ICC and the UN itself is a lack of will by the international community to take tough action, together with the absence of any reliable force inside Congo that can be trusted to keep the peace.

Into this cauldron has come the US legislation, contained in a ‘blink-and-you’ll miss it’ Amendment, number 1502. At first sight the law looks promising. It was first proposed in 2009 by a group of senators including Republican Sam Brownback and Democrat Russ Feinberg, but failed to make it through the committee stage. This summer Brownback persuaded Senate banking chairman Chris Dodds to fold it into a reform act, and the conflict minerals law was born.

The legislation will compel all publicly listed US companies to declare to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) whether their products contain four minerals – gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten – purchased from armed groups in the Congo.

If they do, they are required to produce an independently researched audit trail explaining which armed groups they source from. An “armed group” is defined as one that is committing human rights violations, and the State Department is tasked with deciding which Congo militias qualify.

Meanwhile the Comptroller General is ordered to draw up minimum standards for the independent audit; companies failing to provide such an audit can be fined and sanctioned by the SEC.

The legislation does not ban such trade, but implicit in its wording is that firms will not want the bad publicity from being publicly associated with rapacious warlords.

But problems abound. First, businesses have started complaining that world trade is now too globalised for a computer company in the United States to be able to trace minerals that have passed through the hands of traders, then into smelters, and on to component makers.

Apple’s Steve Jobs complained to the New York Times in the summer that, short of some as yet undreamed of chemical analysis, he has no way of knowing which minerals in the computers he make come from Congo and those that originate elsewhere. Not so, says Global Witness, a pressure group that has produced detailed studies of how conflict minerals law might work. It says the bottleneck in the world’s supply chains are the smelters, and that giants like Apple and Hewlett Packard have the muscle to ensure they stop processing conflict minerals.

But metals traders warn of a second problem. If such pressure is applied, the easiest route for the smelters will be to stop taking Congo products, a move that could see mining dry up in Congo, threatening the ten million Congolese who Global Witness estimates depend for mining for their livelihood. Global Witness has an answer to that too, saying the US law will give an incentive for US companies to buy minerals from “clean” mines, ignoring those held by armed groups.

But this strikes at a more intractable problem, which is the lack of any “clean” mines in Eastern Congo. As a report by the current UN group of experts points out, “In the Kivu provinces it appears almost every mining deposit is controlled by an armed group”

The harsh reality is that Congo is a dysfunctional country. All the mines are controlled by armed groups, and all groups, be they loyal to the government or rebels, have blood on their hands.

And rather than see the birth of new “clean” mines, the US law might actually make things worse, by being used as a pretext for a power-grab by Kinshasa.

This has already started to happen. Kinshasa, which welcomed the US legislation, has now banned almost all mining in Ituri and the Kivus, a move it hopes will scare US companies into refusing to buy materials smuggled out of the country.

The central government has little control in eastern Congo, so Kinshasa has formed an alliance with the Rwandan proxy militia CNDP, who are now expanding across the Kivus. A law designed to allow free and open mines may unwittingly end up reinforcing the control of a central government every bit as corrupt as its rebel adversaries.

Another obstacle is the attitude of Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda, whose governments are profiting from the trade in smuggled minerals and may not want it to change. All three states are already angry at allegations that their forces were involved in crimes highlighted by the UN war crimes report. Yet their co-operation will be vital if the US is to use this law to build a more comprehensive peace plan to end fighting in eastern Congo.

Also uncertain is how much political force lies behind the US legislation, which is the product not of the Obama administration, but of a handful of energetic congressmen backed by human rights groups. Rights groups hope the Congo law will be matched by legislation from the European Union and, by building on the success of the 2003 Kimberly Process of diamond tracing, create a new paradigm, in which human rights is made a key component of international trade agreements.

It is an ambitious hope. Even if the conflict minerals law as it stands can be made to work, Congo’s conflicts will not go away. The struggles between the Hema and Lendu and the Hutu and Tutsi, to name just two, will continue with our without the cash from the control of each other’s mines.

The bottom line is that for the US law to be enforced, and finally separate Congo’s warring factions from the mining trade that fills their pockets, concerted action will be needed by the US, its allies, Congo itself and its neighbouring states.

It is precisely this lack of will that has doomed efforts of the UN, the ICC and everyone else to stop Congo’s wars. And without some new international commitment, the new US law may end up going the same way.

Chris Stephen is the author of Judgement Day: The Trial of Slobodan Milosevic (Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2005).

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