Apple CEO Steve Jobs, in a personal email posted by Wired
, recently tried to explain to a concerned iPhone customer the complexity of ensuring Apple’s devices do not use conflict minerals like those helping to fund the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However much one might be tempted to pile on Apple at the moment
, Mr. Jobs is on to something with regard to the conflict minerals trade – expressing outrage and raising awareness of the problem is one thing but actually implementing an effective solution is quite another.
As finely articulated in a number of recent articles about conflict minerals in the DRC (see the New York Times
, and Foreign Policy
for example), the Congo is, and has been for some time, a failed state
Although a ceasefire was signed in 2003, fighting has continued in the far east of the country around North and South Kivu provinces, home to heavy deposits of tin, gold, coltan, and other minerals. The remote area is very diverse ethnically and has seen clashing between government troops and various militias from the Congo itself as well as encroachments by its neighbors Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi. Referred to as “the Third World War” by many, there are by some accounts 23 different armed groups involved in the fighting, and accusations of massacres, rampant human rights abuses, extortion, and pillaging are common. According to the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, “there is almost total impunity for rape in the Congo,” and a survey by the International Rescue Committee puts the estimated dead from preventable diseases, malnutrition, and conflict in the area at over five million over the past decade (or 45,000 deaths a month).
At a recent event in Washington, DC on this terrible conflict (see Natural Security for an excellent summary), DRC Ambassador Faida Mitifu expressed her hope to the audience and panel (including U.S. Under Secretary of State Robert Hormats) that they would not limit themselves to “just talking.” Hosts John Pendergast and Andrew Sullivan of the NGO Enough Project hope to address the demand side of Congo’s mineral trade by pushing Congress to pass the Conflict Minerals Trade Act, which would require U.S. companies to face independent audits to certify their products are conflict mineral-free.
But Laura Seay, of Texas in Africa and the Christian Science Monitor, is dubious of this proposal, pointing out that:
Without the basic tools of public order in place and functioning as instruments of the public good in the DRC, the provisions of this bill are likely to work about as well as the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme does in weak states that lack functioning governmental institutions – which is to say, not at all.The Kimberely Process (KP) is a certification scheme that is supposed to stem the flow of “blood diamonds” that support corrupt regimes and fuel human rights abuses. But the KP’s governing body has recently reached a crisis of action over whether or not to punish Zimbabwe for alleged abuses, with one diamond magnate even claiming, according to IRIN, that “corrupt governments have turned the KP on its head – instead of eliminating human rights violations, the KP is legitimizing them.”
The problem with international transparency schemes like the Kimberely Process, the proposed Conflict Minerals Act, or even EITI, is that at the very least, a functioning government – if not a beneficent one – is needed to enforce regulations at the source. In the DRC’s case, not only does the government have little to no authority over the affected areas, but the mining militias are smuggling their loot, on foot in some cases, directly into neighboring countries anyway. By the time they reach U.S. companies (if ever – Americans are not the only consumers in the world), conflict minerals have passed hands so many times that proving their provenance is next to impossible.
Then there is the question of whether or not cutting off the militias, rogue military officials, and government forces from conflict mineral monies would even end violence in the region in the first place. Certainly many armed groups gain a great deal from their illegal mining activities (as do some locals), but is it the root cause of their discontent? In the best case scenario where mining revenues are actually decreased, would that really convince the remnants of the Hutu Interahamwe, fleeing retribution from the now majority-Tutsi Rwandan government, to suddenly put down their weapons? How about the Mai Mai, who are fighting the Hutu incursion into their homeland?
I for one find that hard to believe. Stopping the conflict mineral trade from afar is very difficult, if not impossible, and even if we could end the trade, it would not necessarily stop the suffering. Illegal mining does play a large part in supporting rebel groups, but to address the human security problems that have so horrified the world, international attention ought to first be turned toward improving governance mechanisms in the Congo and rethinking the troubled UN peacekeeping mission (how about more involvement out of U.S. AFRICOM too?). The failure of the current UN mission is well documented, but withdrawing the largest peacekeeping force in the world in the face of continued violence, including the recent death of Congo’s most famous human rights activist under suspicious circumstances, seems more likely to cause harm than good.
Would passing the Conflict Minerals Act make Apple consumers feel better? Perhaps. But that’s not the point. Environmental security measures that prevent the DRC’s tremendous mineral wealth from being used to fund conflict can only make an impact if the government has some measure of accountable control over the area. To make a real difference in east Congo, human security must first be addressed directly and forcefully.
Sources: BBC, Christian Science Monitor, Daily Beast, Human Rights Watch, IPS News, IRIN News, International Rescue Committee, Enough Project, Foreign Policy, GlobalSecurity.org, Globe and Mail, New York Times, Share the World’s Resources, Southern Times, Times Online, UN, Wired.
Image Credit: “Minerals and Forests of the DRC” from ECSP Report 12, courtesy of Philippe Rekacewicz, Le Monde diplomatique, Paris, and Environment and Security Institute, The Hague, January 2003.