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Controlling enablers in the conflict mineral trade

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By Enrico Carisch, Advisor to Human Rights First

Congress is poised to take action to confront one of the most intractable problems in one of the most violent places on earth: conflict minerals in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite 10 years of United Nations reporting about vicious violence connected with gold, tin, coltan and wolframite, many international refining and trading companies insist, implicitly or explicitly, that their due diligence need not extend to the origins of these minerals. Well-intentioned governments have trotted out half-hearted responses to block this funding source for illegal militias and soldiers who commit gross human rights abuses in the Congo.

The Senate legislation proposed by Senator Brownback, Feingold, Durbin, Specter and Brown, and similar legislation that is making its way through the House, will remove the option for U.S. corporations to plead ignorance of the devastating effects uncontrolled imports of these metals can have on the local populations of the Congo. This legislation would also clarify how we in the industrialized world, our governments and our companies, can better shoulder our responsibilities as important stakeholders of Central Africa's natural resources.

The pending bills in the Senate and House would force companies to determine and disclose whether coltan, tin, gold, and wolframite used in their products originated in war-torn areas of the Congo, information that the U.S. government would then make public. This would be a first step toward giving all market participants--starting but not ending with those in the U.S.--confidence that their purchases of raw materials and finished goods are not inadvertently enabling atrocities in Central Africa.

As commendable the legislative efforts are, Congress must guard against false victories that might result from only embracing due diligence norms for US companies. The underlying hard security problems in the Congo persist and atrocities continue. The logistics for carrying out credible audits and certification as envisioned in the Senate legislation will be very difficult and costly. Enhancing controls over the Congo's natural resources was always part of an overall plan in which the U.S., as an important member of the international community, had a hand in devising. There are three components to this plan that deal with physical security, reconstruction of the DRC's institutions and state capacities, and establishing regional peace and security.

Establishing physical security and stopping the horrific human rights abuses against the people--particularly the women and children--of the eastern Congo's Kivu Provinces is, at bottom, the responsibility of the Government of President Joseph Kabila and in particular of his armed forces. Strong international pressure, backed up by determined financial and technical assistance, will be necessary to help President Kabila to wrest control from those military leaders who stand in the way of regularizing the Congo's mineral industry.

Rebuilding the Congolese institutions in charge of managing the nation's natural wealth is in progress, thanks to significant investments by the World Bank. These efforts encompass the enactment already in 2002 of a modern Mining Law and ministerial orders that set out detailed rules for the certification of all mineral resources as a condition for an export license. Two agencies have been created, one to evaluate and certify all precious and semiprecious stones and minerals, and the second to protect and train artisan and small-scale miners as well as to monitor their production and sales. Finally, the DRC's mining cadastre is the most advanced digitalized national resource inventory management system in the region and is contributing greatly to protecting land and natural resource rights.

Similar progress can be noted on the regional level. In response to past wars, the international community facilitated the creation of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). The organization, comprised of 11 Central African states, fosters dialogue and cooperation among the member states. Furthermore, in September 2009 it formed a regional steering committee charged with implementing plans that will allow member states to act in concert against illegal exploitation of natural resources and to establish a regional certification system for gold, tin, coltan, and wolframite.

Congress should support and strengthen this overall plan. Ensuring overall peace and security in the Congo is the best guarantee to regularizing and securing the global mineral supply chain. If the industrialized States do not accept the leadership responsibility, China will gladly lead the way in the race to the bottom of transparency and accountability.

*The author has served as a UN sanctions monitor in the DRC, assisted the ICGLR with planning its natural resource management and is currently advising Human Rights First, a U.S.-based human rights advocacy group.