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Conflict Minerals on the Blogs: Correcting Misperceptions

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Conflict Minerals on the Blogs: Correcting Misperceptions

Posted by David Sullivan and Laura Heaton on August 6, 2010

Conflict Minerals on the Blogs: Correcting Misperceptions

In the two weeks since President Obama signed the conflict minerals bill – a landmark moment after two years of advocacy to press the U.S. government to address the issue – one corner of the blogosphere has been subsumed with posts pointing out the merits and the perceived flaws of the new law. 

Let’s be clear: Congo is a vast country with an intricate history, and the current conflict in the Kivu provinces is among the most complex in the world. There is ample room to debate the relative importance of different drivers of the conflict, and the potential policy levers that might help contribute to peace. We welcome this conversation, in which we have been an active participant, both on the ground in eastern Congo and here in the United States.

But much of the criticism of our work on conflict minerals implies otherwise, suggesting that activism around the U.S. legislation and the wider campaign portrays the U.S. bill as sufficient to break the links between illicit resource trafficking and violence in Congo, and that breaking that link would be sufficient to end the conflict. This is simply inaccurate.

As we have stated in multiple strategy papers, blog posts, op-eds, and other publications, Enough views conflict minerals as a major driver of conflict in eastern Congo, which has other important driving factors. Addressing the minerals trade is particularly important because until recently it was neglected, disregarded by diplomats and policymakers in negotiations and peace talks. Also, international advocacy on conflict minerals can be more effective than on other issues in the conflict, because of the international dimension of the trade. There is a limited extent to which the United States government can influence land reform issues in Masisi territory, for example. But we are the ultimate consumers of Congo’s tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, and that is a lever worth using. But in our research, policy positions, and advocacy, we continue to support a holistic approach to peace in Congo that incorporates the economic dimensions of the conflict into a comprehensive policy.

This is not a particularly controversial analysis. Among others it has been endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, the G8, the U.S. State Department, the European Parliament, the Catholic Church in Congo and the United States, the Congolese government, regional governments (pdf), a slew of NGOs, and even a few honest-to-goodness experts. Our analysis is roughly consistent with most of the U.N. Group of Experts reports on Congo.

Some criticisms of this campaign have implied that this issue is at odds with the views of Congolese people and civil society organizations. Again, this is simply false. We tend to be skeptical of anyone who tries to speak on behalf of “the Congolese people” because Congo’s population is far too vast, diverse, and opinionated to be reduced to a talking point. Local perspectives on conflict minerals, as on other contentious issues, vary dramatically. Certainly there are groups that differ with us, and whose constructive criticism we do appreciate. But the pivotal role of the Catholic Church in Congo in lobbying on behalf of the legislation, and recent statements of support from major Congolese human rights organizations, such as African Association for the Defense of Human Rights, demonstrate ample Congolese support for this effort.

It is true that Enough’s advocacy efforts have given disproportionate attention to conflict minerals over the past year. As an organization focused on the U.S. response to mass atrocities, we constantly grapple with the challenge of finding advocacy asks that will resonate with activists across the United States, while also ensuring that our reporting on the conflict is firmly grounded in field research and in line with the findings of respected Congo experts. Of course, it isn’t possible to pack volumes of context and nuance into an advocacy call-out on Facebook, but our policy papers consistently address the numerous, deep-seated issues that fuel conflict in eastern Congo.

There are numerous other pressure points that the international community should help address, from security sector reform to justice and accountability, from ensuring a more transparent process for returning refugees, to devising a more effective strategy to dismantle the FDLR and to demobilize Congo’s many militia groups.

But the conflict minerals issue resonates with a potent group of actors in the United States, namely, advocates and concerned consumers who do not want their purchases to fund armed groups in Congo, a handful of dedicated members of Congress and leaders in the Obama administration who see a lasting solution to the Congo conflict as part of their personal priorities and legacies, and increasingly, leaders in the electronics industry itself, which is responding to the moral and consumer pressure to take on this issue.

This growing attention in the United States corresponds with increasing focus on the issue from within Congo. As Congolese Ambassador Faida Mitifu emphasized in a recent event in Washington, “We can all work together on this; we are partners. NGOs, media, governments, the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The [Congolese] government has been losing so much in terms of revenue because it doesn’t control the flow of these illegal mining processes.” Moreover, there is growing space for dialogue on this issue in North and South Kivu, where civil society groups, the private sector, and government officials have begun a process of collaboration on how to put the region’s resources to use to better benefit its people. This confluence of interests in addressing conflict minerals in Congo provides a rare opportunity to confront the profit motive fueling the conflict for more than a decade.

So how do we expect to see this new law change the calculations of those currently benefiting from the minerals trade? The Security and Exchange Commission is just beginning to work out the details of how the conflict minerals law will be implemented, and industry groups are lobbying hard to see that the SEC regulations carry as little weight as possible, by narrowly defining, for instance, which companies have to report on their activities in eastern Congo. But if the regulation is written to appropriately include the thousands of companies that depend upon these materials to manufacture electronics, jewelry and other products, we believe it could create the ‘demand shock’ necessary to change the present dynamics on the ground in Congo. Supply chain due diligence is a means of exerting commercial leverage on the elites who are currently benefiting from the minerals trade.

Our researchers in Congo have seen a shift since conflict minerals became a hot topic. At stops all along the supply chain in central Africa, the risk that companies will source elsewhere provides a powerful incentive to clean up the trade. Complying with independent audits and monitoring would impose some checks and balances on the trade, creating costs for continuing to do business with the worst actors on the ground and helping encourage reform. For details on how reduced revenue from the minerals trade might affect the behavior of armed groups – and ideas for heading off this potential blowback – this concept note (pdf) by Congo experts Jason Stearns and Steve Hege is recommended reading.

Of course, in the short-term, some companies will choose to pull their business out of Congo altogether. This is not our objective, but it is a serious issue. Miners will lose jobs, and the main risk is that ex-combatants will rejoin militias. Here’s where we get back to the point that addressing conflict minerals trade has to be part of a much broader strategy, one that will span many years and focus on spurring broad economic recovery, promoting good governance and cracking down on corruption, and revitalizing peacebuilding efforts. In particular, companies that have long benefited from Congo’s cheap mineral trade should work with donors to create a fund dedicated to supporting alternative livelihoods for miners.

We’re putting the finishing touches on some Frequently Asked Questions to respond to the inquiries that have come in with the passage and signing of the new conflict minerals bill. We hope this document will provide additional clarification on topics that this already-very-long blog post was only able to touch on. There are other products in the pipeline that will hone in on the trade in specific metals, as well as others that more broadly assess the U.S. policy in Congo, and of course, we’ll be acutely tuned in to the process by which the Securities and Exchange Commission will promulgate the new law.

Please stay tuned, and get in touch if the strategy behind our methods seems unclear so that we can clarify via Enough Said or offline. This is a pivotal moment, when increased public awareness, constructive pressure on corporations, unlikely partnerships, and high-profile champions in Kinshasa, Washington, and other capitals could come together to generate smart, comprehensive policies that truly change the game on the ground in Congo.


Photo: Tin ore (Grassroots Reconciliation Group/Sasha Lezhnev)