At a recent conference titled, “A Conflict of Interests: Canadian Mining in the Congo” organized by STAND McGill, the most debated topic of the day was the role and impact of U.S. and Canadian legislation in curbing violence caused by so-called conflict minerals in the Great Lakes Region of sub-Saharan Africa. These sentiments beg the questions of whether national legislation is actually having an effect on Congolese people or whether it is simply making companies and consumers feel better about their behaviour.
One common misconception about the cycle of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is that it is caused, in part at least, by conflict minerals. However, it is important to understand that the illegal exploitation minerals is an effect of the war. This misunderstanding about the roots of long-standing conflict threatens to lead to flawed responses as to whether action in the United States or Canada can affect the situation on the ground.
So let’s start with the basics.
What has been coined by French historian Gerard Prunier as “Africa’s World War” finds its roots in two successive wars—not to mention its colonial past as a particularly brutal example of heavy-handed Belgian colonialism. In 1996, Rwanda invaded the eastern DRC to oppose extremist Hutu militias responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide who had fled there. Aided by Rwanda, Congolese rebels led by Laurent Kabila took the opportunity to end the reign of Joseph Mobutu—who had been in power since 1965.
The strategic alliance between Rwanda and Kabila was short-lived and the fall out led Rwanda and Uganda to back new rebel groups, this time against Kabila. Nine states ultimately got involved in the war. Widespread insecurity, sporadic violence, and the collapse of state authority in the country’s eastern provinces led to the formation of an array of local, foreign, and now internationally-mandated armed groups. Despite numerous peace deals, talks, and ceasefires between rival factions, peace remains elusive in the eastern DRC.
Moreover, the conflict has killed more than 5 million people while there are over 19,000 UN peacekeepers in the country based in Kinshasa with little prospect of them leaving any time soon. At last count, there were at least 30 armed groups and armies that after 20 years of conflict do not seem to know what they are fighting over.
So what role do minerals play in this situation? Although the DRC is one of the poorest places on earth, paradoxically, its soil contains some of the largest deposits of natural mineral resources anywhere—including tungsten, tantalum, tin, gold, uranium, and coltan. But as the UN recognizes, the illicit exploitation and trade of natural resources is “one of the factors fuelling and exacerbating conflicts.”
Armed groups and national armies make an estimated total of USD$185 million from the aforementioned minerals and this lucrative business allows them to maintain their murderous activities. To maintain control of the mines, rebel groups commit widespread human rights abuses, including killings, rape, and torture.
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