Digging In: Recent Developments on Conflict Minerals

 

Congo’s mineral wealth continues to play a central role in the country’s conflict dynamics. Despite the upsurge in displacement and atrocities during 2009, multinational companies continue to purchase minerals from the war zone.

Congolese and international efforts to reform the mineral trade

Intense pressure on the Congolese minerals supply chain in the wake of the U.N. investigations and a rising tide of international interest invigorated efforts to establish a legitimate, formal supply chain under the control of Congo’s state authorities.

The Congolese Government

On August 8, Kinshasa dispatched a high-level delegation consisting of Prime Minister Adolphe Muzito and Minister of Mines Martin Kabwelulu to North Kivu to evaluate eastern Congo’s mining sector. Muzito travelled to Walikale, where he stated the government’s determination to bring the mining sector under state control and to remove the military from the mines.[16]
 
The prime minister’s visit was greeted with skepticism among some civil society groups in the Kivus, who perceived a degree of political pandering and populism from a party sorely in need of shoring up its sagging popularity in the east. However, interviews with mining officials in both North and South Kivu indicate that the government has developed a planning process for the minerals sector that will follow on the prime minister’s policy statement.
 
In South Kivu, Provincial Minister of Mines Colette Mikila travelled to the interior of the province for the first time, visiting Shabunda from September 1 - 4 to assess the situation in the field, with plans for the reform of the sector to be presented to the government by year’s end. Importantly, the government is specifically addressing the critical question of achieving a traceable supply chain for minerals, as well as related questions about combating fraud and contraband.
 
Kinshasa’s growing interest in reforming the mining sector in eastern Congo is long overdue. That government officials are only now visiting mining areas, more than three years after elections, indicates the degree to which the minerals trade in the Kivus has been ceded to armed groups and shadow networks. Shifting this dynamic will require more than statements and one-off visits—it will require dedicated resources and political will from President Joseph Kabila himself.
 
The good news is that such a move may be in Kabila’s interest. He won the 2006 election thanks to a vote bank in eastern Congo where his popularity has since plummeted. Delivering benefits to this population may be his only shot at prevailing in 2011 in a credible electoral process. However, this would require cracking down on some of his own inner circle, including powerful politicians, military commanders, and business elites, to demand that they alter their practices and bring the mineral trade in eastern Congo into the sunlight.

The stabilization plan

In debates over eastern Congo’s future everybody agrees that restoring state authority and developing security forces with basic capacity to protect the population is the key to peace. How to accomplish these tasks is more difficult to articulate, and the series of crises that have wracked the Kivus over the years since the 2006 elections have often distracted from this fundamental question. Nonetheless, the political space created by the Rwanda-Congo détente has reinvigorated attempts to try.
 
Toward this end, the Congolese government and MONUC have put pen to paper and developed an integrated plan entitled, “The Stabilization and Reconstruction Plan for Zones Emerging from Armed Conflict.” Based on a stabilization plan developed by MONUC in early 2008, the plan consists of three elements: security, humanitarian and social issues, and economic revival, with ambitious plans to cover six provinces in eastern Congo.
 
Importantly, the stabilization plan recognizes that dealing with illicit exploitation of natural resources is a core security challenge in eastern Congo, and it includes a component within the security objective to install a mechanism to control mineral and forest resources to prevent their illegal exploitation by criminal groups. Over a six-month period the plan envisions deploying mining authorities at the subprovincial level with offices in Beni/Lubero and Walikale in North Kivu and in Shabunda, Uvira, Walungu, Kalehe, Mwenga, and Fizi in South Kivu, as well as assorted locations in Maniema, Orientale, and Katanga. At these buying centers, authorized state authorities would be placed under one roof at transportation hubs, where they would be able to collect official taxes, compile statistics, and certify the origins of minerals.
 
The plan also calls for implementing Congo’s Mining Code and establishing a system of permits for artisanal exploitation of minerals, an aspect of the law that has been slow to be put into practice in eastern Congo, leaving the vast majority of miners operating in an ambiguous quasi-legal state.
 
To demilitarize the mines the plan calls for placing mining sites under the control of legitimate authorities and deploying officials from the mining ministry, its certification authority, and antifraud agents at mining sites themselves, as well as identifying airports and landing strips used to transport minerals and developing proper oversight systems. At airports, ports, and border crossings, the plan calls for placing state authorities under one roof, developing a one-stop shop for applying both mining and forestry laws. Such a system would build upon MONUC’s commencement of random checks of aircrafts and boats to combat contraband, which began in June 2009.
 
Although MONUC has reported the seizure of illicit minerals as a result of these checks, Enough understands that they are extremely limited in scale and scope. Even a modest augmentation of such efforts could help deter the wholesale smuggling of minerals and other illicit trade across Congo’s porous borders.
 
Much more detailed plans will be required to properly assess the viability of the natural resource control elements of the stabilization plan, but its existence and incorporation of these issues is a welcome step forward. The establishment of buying centers would not ensure traceability of minerals back to their specific mines of origin, but they would provide an important first step to reasserting the regulation of the trade by legitimate authorities rather than armed groups and military units.
 
Ultimately, getting the mines out of armed groups’ control will depend on the ability of the Congolese state to exercise control over its own security forces, which would provide the opportunity for other state agents, from mining inspectors to customs authorities, to be able to do their job and to be held accountable for fraud. This task is gargantuan, well beyond the six-month timetable of the plan. But the size of the challenge should not preclude first steps in the right direction. Contingent upon rigorous operational plans, international donors should support stabilization efforts and provide funding to begin the process of reforming the mining sector in the east.

Private-sector efforts

Renewed international attention to Congo’s conflict minerals has provoked an unprecedented response from actors engaged in the trade, from exporters in Goma and Bukavu to metals traders and smelters operating in Europe and Asia, all the way to the electronics companies that manufacture and market mobile phones, laptops, and music players. Although the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations have “named and shamed” companies involved with armed groups in eastern Congo in the past, these efforts have previously had little effect on trade dynamics.[17]
 
However, the 2008 U.N. Group of Experts report and the subsequent decision by metals trader Traxys to suspend purchasing from Congo does appear to have rattled both international and Congolese actors in the supply chain, and has sparked efforts by industry to develop higher standards of due diligence. While there is clearly more enthusiasm among some members on industry than with others, increased engagement on these issues is a good thing.
 
The International Tin Research Institute, or ITRI, is a membership organization that represents the world’s leading tin smelters. Among its members are the two major smelters that have been confirmed as purchasing minerals from eastern Congo—the Malaysia Smelting Corporation and Thaisarco. In response, these companies formed a working group together with Traxys to develop an action plan to implement more rigorous due diligence procedures that would enable companies to continue to purchase from the Congo while seeking to exclude armed groups and military units from the supply chain.[18] The tantalum industry has put forth a similar initiative as well.[19]
 
The ITRI Tin Supply Chain Initiative, or iTSCi, presents a phased approach to improving due diligence and traceable supply chains within the Congolese tin industry. Phase 1 involves improving practices in the already formalized links in the supply chain—ensuring that exporters complete paperwork attesting to the chain of custody for the minerals they export. Phase II involves expanding the project to actually verify mines of origin. Phase III would achieve a more comprehensive program that not only verifies the provenance of minerals, but also measures performance against a range of standards including supply chain mapping, chain of custody, legitimacy, business ethics, and avoiding conflict finance. Timelines for implementation of the initiative lack precision, and they are dependent on external funding.
 
A number of issues with this initiative remain. The most important is ensuring that the initiative’s effectiveness can be independently verified and made subject to audits by third parties without any conflict of interest. There are provisions for independent auditing in the plan, but they have yet to be implemented. If the initiative fails to put rigorous third-party monitoring into practice the scheme will simply be the industry policing itself and papering over the continuing flow of conflict minerals with half measures. Moreover, the industry should take more overt responsibility for taking all possible measures to exclude conflict actors from the supply chain. Although this will require partnership with the Congolese government, the United Nations, donor governments, and civil society, the industry can do much on its own to hold its suppliers to account.
 
On October 6, the Congolese Ministry of Mines endorsed the ITRI initiative following meetings in Kinshasa. In North and South Kivu, Enough encountered receptivity toward the plan from Congolese exporters, although they cautioned that the plan would need to be adjusted and revised to be feasible to implement on the ground in eastern Congo. Likewise, a coalition of civil society organizations in South Kivu active in supporting a process of dialogue with government and industry on mining sector reform has also called for international companies to engage with local structures to prevent a boycott of Congolese minerals that might adversely affect miners and their families.
 
In discussions with Enough, exporters suggested that other means of achieving traceability—including strengthened efforts to formalize the traders who move minerals from mines to the major cities—could help to improve accountability for the origin of minerals. Importantly, the exporters also expressed willingness to be more transparent, including providing detailed information on their finances and taxes. This could help ensure that the taxation of the minerals trade benefits Congo’s state coffers rather than fueling corruption.
 
Ultimately, the reputation of the companies dealing in eastern Congo’s minerals will depend not on intentions and plans, but on the concrete actions that result. The actions that will build the credibility of industry-led initiatives include companies willing to accept independent audits and suppliers ready to stop purchasing from companies that fall short of providing adequate due diligence or whom are shown to be continuing to source from militarized mines.