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IN DEPTH: Buying War by Elizabeth Palchik Allen

Why a Kimberley Process for Congolese “conflict minerals” won’t achieve what its supporters hope

Diamonds have a unique cachet that most commodities simply don’t have: they’re recognized as items of intrinsic beauty, and sold as symbols of romance. No doubt, this is partly why the existence of conflict diamonds unnerves so many people. The idea that diamonds can be used to fund bad actions—rebel warfare, human rights abuses, political chaos—undermines the appeal of the stones themselves. Which is why the diamond industry has spent the last decade trying to regulate the trade, hoping to eliminate (or at least decrease) the use of diamonds as a tool of wartime finance.

As most of us know by now, though, diamonds are by no means the only “conflict commodity” out there in the world today. Standing in the trenches of a mining pit in eastern Congo, a group of teens works in the shadow of the midday sun, hacking away at the earth for minerals that, while less well-known than diamonds, nevertheless fetch high prices in the West: coltan for cell phones and computers. Cassiterite, or tin oxide, for machinery. A young man in his early 20s who identifies himself as a former “coltan negotiator” tells a reporter in French, “The places where coltan was found were occupied by the Mai Mai forces [a rogue militia in eastern Congo]. They imposed themselves in the mines and watched over the miners and even managed their work.” The Mai Mai have perpetrated some of the region’s worst atrocities, using money from the coltan trade to fund their lawless activities.

Over the past few years, the relationship between militia violence and conflict minerals, like coltan, has caught the eye of advocacy groups in the United States. Given the ongoing violence in Congo—with rape reaching epidemic levels, and the proliferation of militias causing all manner of carnage—some have wondered if an economic solution might not be the best way to choke off the region’s warfare. By regulating the market for conflict minerals, the argument goes, we can help ensure that western consumers don’t inadvertently fund those rogue militias that derive their revenue from the trade in minerals. Last year, members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate introduced two nearly identical bills based on this logic. If either bill becomes law, it would attempt to create mechanisms to trace the origins of high-value minerals coming out of Congo. As the bills put it, by “exercising due diligence,” we can clamp down on the market for minerals that “directly finance armed conflict,” and by doing so, help decrease the area’s violence.

But can we, and will it? The notion that we can halt the proliferation of war through economic means is admittedly attractive. Unfortunately, though, it’s probably not true. The idea has its intellectual roots in the creation of the Kimberley Process over a decade ago, which regulates the diamond trade. However, as many observers have noted, part of the mystique surrounding Kimberley, at least in the public imagination, is due to the fact that the birth of the process happened to coincide with the closure of several violent civil wars (like the one in Sierra Leone)–conflicts whose perpetrators trafficked in diamonds and other high-value materials. Kimberley itself did not bring about a resolution to these conflicts. This is a crucial reality to understand when considering the case of Congo, where advocates hope that a Kimberley-type solution will not only clean up the mineral trade, but also create a more secure environment. Yet, the unfortunate fact is, while exercising due diligence may begin to bring some much-needed transparency to the activities of those companies that import Congolese minerals, such efforts by themselves won’t end Congo’s violence. In fact, if undertaken without a multi-pronged approach that includes security sector reform, such due diligence measures could, in the short term at least, end up doing more harm than good.

The roots of the ongoing crisis in eastern Congo run deep, tangled in colonial-era grievances that reach back over a hundred years: from issues surrounding land ownership to questions about who, exactly, qualifies as Congolese. Yet, while the grievances themselves are longstanding, the cause of the current inflammation of violence is much more recent: the result of a brutal civil war begun in 1998 after the overthrow of the country’s longtime leader, Mobutu Sese Seko. One of the most devastating consequences of this war was the proliferation of militia groups in the east, many of which were sponsored by neighboring countries that were fighting in Congo for a multitude of reasons, both political and economic. The destruction of all semblance of security in the easternmost provinces of the country was the terrible consequence of this fighting. And despite peace agreements between regional governments and a formal cessation of fighting in 2004, many of Congo’s eastern militias remained armed and active. Meanwhile, schemes to integrate former guerrilla fighters into the ranks of the Congolese armed forces only served to further weaken an already hobbled army, especially given the fact that many of these fighters remained loyal to their militia leaders, not the army’s chain of command.

This backdrop is important to understand, because it highlights two crucial facts: first, that many actors fighting in eastern Congo are motivated by ideological concerns that compete with, and oftentimes supersede, economic motivations; and second, that the Congolese military has no monopoly on violence in the area, and continues to be weakened by the incorporation of former rebel guerrillas into the ranks of its already dysfunctional and resource-poor units. This latter point is especially significant because certain brigades within the armed forces have been implicated in the illegal mineral trade, and accused of committing acts of grotesque violence against civilians.

So why can’t we just choke off the violence by targeting the mineral trade?

For starters, most militias in eastern Congo have alternative sources of income at their disposal. While groups like the Mai Mai have been able to tap into the coltan trade for revenue, such minerals usually amount to only a portion of the groups’ total funds. One of the region’s prominent militias—Le Congres National Pour la Liberation du Peuple (CNDP), which was headed until recently by the charismatic Laurent Nkunda—is estimated to receive only 15 percent of its revenue from the region’s mineral trade, while another well-known rebel group, Les Forces Democratique pour la Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), may get about 75 percent of its revenue from minerals (especially gold). If the trade in Congolese minerals were somehow choked off, these groups would definitely feel the pressure on their bottom line. But the other revenue streams they have at their disposal—from the taxation of land, agricultural goods, and the weapons trade, to remittances from their extensive diaspora networks—could likely keep many afloat and functional.

On top of this, any meaningful effort to curtail violence through economic means will be difficult for purely logistical reasons. Right now, the paper trail for most Congolese minerals only begins at the point of export. And Congo’s bureaucracy, which is notoriously weak and rife with corruption, is several years away from having the capacity to determine a mineral’s ultimate source of origin (which often means the exact mine from which the mineral came). Even the Kimberley Process can’t do this for many of the diamonds it certifies.

What’s more, if countries like the United States choose to legislate due diligence measures in the current climate, many legitimate companies may simply choose to disengage from Congo entirely—especially as Congolese minerals become increasingly stigmatized in the public eye. Not only could these measures harm those mining communities in the east that are relatively free of rebel control, but they could severely jeopardize the livelihoods of the estimated one million people in the region who depend in one way or another on the area’s minerals. According to a 2009 report released by the Communities and Small-Scale Mining (CASM) initiative, what eastern Congo needs is a way to engage those legitimate actors who have an economic interest in formalizing the region’s mineral trade. But implementing due-diligence measures in today’s environment may produce the opposite effect. As CASM put it, “currently, the risk-freest response for the private sector to be able to guarantee that its products do not contain minerals that may have been associated with conflict dynamics is to completely withdraw from purchasing from Eastern DRC.…The implication of a withdrawal of the formal private sector, particularly of international actors, is primarily the loss of a potential partner in the reform of the sector.”

So what can the world do to assist Congo in curtailing the violence? In the long term, peace in Congo will depend on the creation of governance mechanisms that can address the long-standing political grievances that exist within Congolese society. In the short term, however, a cessation of violence will only come through serious efforts at security sector reform, which will prevent various groups from having the ability to use extreme violence as a substitute for non-violent political and economic engagement.

Unfortunately, though, at the current juncture, donor countries remain woefully unengaged in any real attempt to reform and professionalize Congo’s broken security apparatus. Congo’s military and police forces lack adequate training, have nebulous chains of authority, and regularly go without pay. A 2006 report published by the International Crisis Group called security sector reform the “neglected stepchild” of donor countries. While serious efforts to reform Congo’s security sector would be costly—comprehensive estimates place the cost somewhere between $1 billion and $2 billion—that price tag is no more expensive than the yearly operating budget of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Congo—a mission that has come under fire recently for its continued failure to protect civilians from violence.

If the United States is serious about helping Congo stabilize, it should coordinate efforts toward security reform with other donors. But before it begins engaging others, the United States needs to realign its own funding priorities in Congo. A 2007 report by the Government Accountability Office noted that of approximately $400 million that the U.S. government allocated for Congo in 2006 and 2007, only five percent was directed toward security sector reform. And last year, President Obama’s FY2010 budget request cut Congo's military financing even further, to less than $2.5 million. To be sure, a decrease of this kind may be expected, given the global financial crisis and the burgeoning American budget deficit. Except when you compare that $2.5 million to the $17 million in new funds that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged last August to address the torrent of sexual violence in the region—a pledge that bizarrely included, among other things, funds to buy camcorders so that Congolese women could videotape their rapists.

At the end of the day, if the United States wants to make a real difference in the lives of people affected by violence in eastern Congo, symbolic measures won’t do. The fact is, initiatives like the two bills currently working their way through Congress, while easing the consciences of many well-meaning consumers, will sadly make few inroads in achieving a cessation of violence in the region. It might seem paradoxical, but what Congo needs most from the United States is an increase in the militarization of foreign aid. Anything less is like placing a band-aid on a gaping wound. And in the case of Congo, the patient is growing weaker by the hour.

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Anonymous's picture
Targeting Conflict Resources, Really???


I am curious how the US thinks passing a law to penalize commodities that are termed "Conflict Resources" will actually help the situation in Congo. I agree with the author that symbolic measures will not cut it.
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