A National Gathering of the Next Generation of Human Rights Defenders
Born out of the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in eastern Congo, a group of prominent civil society organizations recently formed a coalition to address the linkage between natural resource exploitation and human rights abuses in the region.
Born out of the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe in eastern Congo, a group of prominent civil society organizations recently formed a coalition to address the linkage between natural resource exploitation and human rights abuses in the region. Focusing primarily on North Kivu mining sites, a platform of nine local human rights organizations with proven records in human rights activism in and around the mining sector came together on March 16, 2011 to merge their efforts under the banner of what is being called the Support Platform for Traceability, and Transparency in the Management of Natural Resources, or GATT-RN. Against formidable odds, these groups are operating in an environment where even Congolese President Kabila has acknowledged the domination of Eastern Congo’s minerals trade by “a type of mafia.” However, the efforts of GATT-RN’s members’ are earning the group regional and international recognition as a reliable interlocutor.
In the East, lagging efforts at mining reform
Theoretically, the mining sector in eastern Congo has been regulated since July 2002 by the Congolese mining code created by the Ministry of Mines. In practice, that code has been continually trampled underfoot by those whose duty it is to enforce the law. Although the Congolese mining administration consists of a mosaic of technical departments such as the Provincial Mining Concessions Authority, the Minerals Expertise and Certification Center, or CEEC, the Small Scale Mining Management and Assistance Service, or SAESCAM, and the Mining Police, or Polimines, the Congolese mining sector remains so opaque that its primary function seems to be enabling an underground economy rather than effectively regulating the minerals trade.
As a result of President Kabila’s 2010 mining ban on all mineral extraction and trade in North and South Kivu provinces as well as Maniema, both armed groups and regular army units’ scrambled for renewed control of mines, leaving a wake of massive human rights violations that worsened an already desperate situation. Initially, the announcement of a mining ban was commended by civil society groups as the President disparaged illegal actors including army officers, politicians and administration officials involved in the mining business. The action was intended to reform the mining sector and create growth and legitimacy in the sector; instead it ended up becoming a vehicle to eject the last few entitled mining operators out of business, further militarize the sector, and become an even larger cash cow for outlaw dealers whose involvement in the conflict-minerals trade has expanded exponentially in recent years. Additionally, the ban eliminated the few traceability pilot projects just getting underway on the ground, specifically the “bag and tag” scheme being stood-up by the International Tin Research Institute, or ITRI, that would have helped local mining operators comply with traceability requirements. As local stakeholder were unable and unsure how to be compliant with the nascent international regulations being established, the mineral purchasers who supplied lucrative western markets began to signal that they were considering no longer sourcing from eastern Congo, due to the ambiguous regulations and operating environment. This pullout has been mischaracterized by local mining operators as “Obama’s embargo”.
After the passage of the conflict minerals provision in the Dodd-Frank Act passed in July 2010, the Congolese government praised the passage of the law as needed leverage to help sever the linkages between minerals exploitation, the financing of armed groups, and the enforcement of transparency initiatives in mineral supply chains. Three months after the passage of the U.S. law, Kabila announced his ban, while at the same time the eleven heads of state of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region, or ICGLR, including DRC also agreed on a Regional Initiative on Natural Resources, or RINR, in Lusaka Zambia on December 15, 2010. The initiative included a regionally accepted certification mechanism that would allow regional states to legitimately export tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold.
Civil society and the U.S. legislation
In the face of a looming pull-out of the region by mineral buyers and possessors, including some of the world’s largest electronics manufacturers, local stakeholders attempted to convene a series of workshops that included representatives from the Congolese mining ministry, mining operators working with the ICGLR and OECD in both Congo and Rwanda, and some civil society organizations. On March 1, 2010, the Congolese government issued a traceability manual backed by several national stakeholders. This move puzzled many North Kivu civil society groups who questioned the need for new regulations, as opposed to the enforcement of existing laws. Some groups saw this as an implicit admission that the Congolese government was unwilling to enforce its own laws, and there was suspicion that the government would continue to fail to uphold its commitments. As one member of GATT-RN put it, “traceability is not a matter of gifted speakers but trust and accountability on the side of the DRC government.”
Since the U.S. conflict mineral legislation passed, local actors with mining interests in Congo have been lobbying both the SEC and State Department for a delay of the implementation of the law for up to three years. At the same time, they have spread rumors on the ground about international NGOs and civil society groups being pawns of U.S., Canadian, and Australian mining companies attempting to steal global market share of minerals away from Congo. In response, a coalition of over 40 Congolese women's and human rights groups led by SYNERGIE, CREDDHO, and BEDEWA have been urging swift implementation of the Dodd-Frank legislation. These local actors view the legislation as a landmark shift in U.S. foreign policy towards Congo, helping to address the linkages between mineral exploitation and funding for illegal armed actors in the region. These groups have long been documenting serious human rights violations including child and forced labor, women’s enslavement, sexual abuse and different forms of illegal taxes, in and around mining communities in the east. Additionally, they collectively wrote Secretary of State Clinton calling for the U.S. State Department to oppose efforts by mining operators to delay new U.S. regulations on conflict-minerals from Congo. In reaction to the coalition’s stand urging swift implementation of the Dodd-Frank legislation, the mayor of Goma, Roger Rashidi Tumbula, threatened to ask the government to track down and punish everyone who was behind the initiative. In a country where people in power are all too trigger-happy against human rights activists and journalists, the mayor’s threat was taken very seriously and received significant attention through the intervention of several international human rights activists and diplomats.
Despite being labeled as traitors by those profiting both from the minerals trade in eastern Congo, GATT-RN has become nationally registered and is today a model organization for civil society groups in South Kivu and Maniema provinces.
The group has established itself as a permanent independent monitoring unit in the field, built to provide third-party checks and balances to the DRC government traceability scheme in North Kivu province. By educating local communities about the various traceability tools including the ICGLR’s RINR framework, the OECD due diligence guidelines, and the U.S. conflict minerals legislation, GATT-RN aims to be a whistleblower for any violations in the stated commitments of the various Congolese mining stakeholders. Attempts to intimidate group members have only strengthened GATT-RN’s resolve. Since their registration, GATT-RN has held three press conferences and shared in the organization of forums hosted by various international actors including USAID. These forums have been an opportunity to sensitize people about U.S. legislation and the need for the Congolese government.
Toward certification on the ground
The conflict minerals provision in the Dodd-Frank Act is currently resulting in unintended consequences, in part because the U.S. government has yet to follow through on the driving a regional certification process for the Great Lakes region of Africa. But among the positive impacts of the legislation is the opening of avenues for civil society participation in efforts to legitimize the mining sector in the east. The GATT-RN platform for civil society participation in the east provides an opportunity for the western governments and NGO to support the whistleblower efforts of these local groups, and ensure local civil society groups have a loud voice and strong role to play in the establishment of an independent minerals monitoring system in the region.
 The organizations are: Bureau d'Etudes, d'Observation et de Coordination pour le Développement du Territoire de Walikale (BEDEWA), Centre de Recherche sur l'Environnement, la Démocratie et les Droits de l'Homme (CREDDHO), Association pour le Développement des Initiatives Paysannes (ASSODIP), SOS AFRICA, Action Sociale pour la Paix et le Développement (ASPD), Programme d'Appui à la Lutte Contre la Misère (PAMI), Groupe Uni pour le Developpement Endogene (GUDE), Reseau de Batisseurs au Congo (REBATISCO), and Action Communautaire pour la Protection de l’Environnement et le Développement Intégral (ACOPEDI). The author, in addition to working for the Enough Project, helped to found SOS AFRICA and works with GATT-RN in this capacity.