This is good news indeed. Now we have three initiatives in the US government aimed at quelling the trade in conflict minerals in the Congo. In addition to this initiative, there is the Congo Minerals Act that Senators Brownback (R-KS), Duck Durbin (D-IL) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) introduced to the upper house in April 2009, as well as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act signed into law in October 2009 requiring the State and Defense Departments to work together to create a map of mining areas and zones occupied by armed groups in the eastern Congo.
This is unprecedented. Previously, the furthest the US Congress has gone is to issue resolutions condemning violence, supporting peace processes and holding hearings. The European Union is watching closely, and advocates in France are considering following suit with pressure on the French parliament. It's nice to see the US taking the lead on this.
But what do these acts actually call for? Here are the most important items in the House bill:
- definition by commerce secretary of what constitutes a conflict mineral good, the tasking of regular audits of mineral processing facilities in the US
- create a conflict minerals map
- support for further investigations by the UN Group of Experts;
- mapping of which armed groups control key mines in eastern Congo;
- inclusion of information on the negative impact of mineral exploitation and trade on human rights in Congo in the annual human rights reports;
- GAO review to evaluate adherence and effectiveness of policies
The main flaw in this legislation, as I have argued before, (I tend to be repetitious) is that it relies on being able to discern what a conflict mineral is. Otherwise the mining companies in the US will just throw their hands up and claim not to know where the minerals are from. This is currently what mining traders in Goma and Bukavu do - they just say: "All we know is that it comes from the interior, we have no idea where it is from." They are often lying, but it is sometimes difficult to prove them wrong - with the UN Group of Experts, we had to retrace the supply chain, sifting through stacks of Congolese documents (which are sometimes unreliable) and get testimony from mining industry insiders.
One idea is to start this kind of certification in several pilot projects and then trying to spread out from there. There is currently an effort being launched by MONUC, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Canadian government to establish "centres de negoce" (trading centers) in five places in North and South Kivu (Mubi, Rubaya, Hombo, Baraka and Kamituga) where international officials would support the Congolese government and police to begin inspecting shipments and certifying their origin. Congolese revenue agents would also be present to levy taxes.
Even here, though, none of the centers would be established at the mines themselves. In the case of Mubi, potentially the biggest center, miners would have to shlep minerals 50 kilometers from the Bisie mine, the biggest tin mine in North Kivu. On the way, minerals from areas controlled by armed groups could be infiltrated into the supply chain; by the time the certifying agents in Mubi look at the bags full of tin, they will have a hard time knowing if it is conflict minerals or not.
We could try certifying at the mines themselves, starting with a dozen or so of the biggest mines. This would require sending reliable agents and people to protect them to these sites, not an easy task as some of the biggest mines are over a day walk from the closest road or airstrip (like Bisie, a 16 hour slog through the jungle from mine to airstrip). This would also face stiff opposition from traders, as it would reduce tin exports by significant amounts, as even "legitimate" mining sites (i.e. those occupied by the Congolese army) would be barred. But this could be a start and something for donors to commission studies to see which sites would be most appropriate.
In the meantime, a quick way of of imposing some accountability in the sector is to take the approach that Global Witness and the UN Group of Experts already have: by investigating the traders and finding out who is knowingly dealing in minerals from rebel-controlled areas. I call this the policing option and recommend setting it up as an official third-party monitor, recognized by the Congolese government with a clear agreement on what illegal activity means, what prerogatives they have under Congolese law and what the sanctions would be violations.
Hence, I think the US legislators' initiatives are laudable, but have a somewhat backwards approach - we should first try to institute mechanisms of accountability at the local level, then at the international level. Of course, the two approaches reinforce each other, and I understand some US-based electronics companies may even be willing to fund such local institutions in the Congo.