Amani Itakuya #6: The Conflict Minerals Agenda – Looking For Peace in the Wrong Place

The Conflict Minerals Agenda – Looking For Peace in the Wrong Place

(photograph © Ben Radley/Obama’s Law)

Ben Radley

To be fair to some of the main advocacy organisations behind the campaign to ‘clean up’ the eastern DRC’s minerals – such as Global Witness and the Enough Project – they do not (when you take the time to read their publications) claim that this will be a panacea for the conflict. However, they do – by prioritising the subject above all others – promote it as the most pressing and urgent conflict-related issue requiring attention in the eastern DRC today. And many governments have responded to their clarion call for action, with the US and Canada passing conflict mineral legislation specifically on the eastern Congo and the European Union set to follow suit in 2014.

The lens of the international community is firmly focused on this issue as a priority peace-building strategy for the region. This poses a serious problem, as cleaning up the mineral supply chain in the eastern DRC has nothing to do with achieving or contributing to peace.

Firstly, armed groups are not (as is often portrayed in sensationalist media headlines or advocacy campaigns) fighting over access to and control of minerals as an end in itself, but as a means to finance their operations to address other grievances, such as unresolved political issues pertaining to land, citizenship and territorial boundaries. Minerals do fuel the conflict, but – to paraphrase Congo expert Jason Stearns in a recent interview – they are not what the conflict was about at the beginning, and they’re certainly not what the conflict is about today.

Secondly, the entire economy in the eastern DRC is militarised, not just the mineral sector. It is a war economy. Anything and everything that makes money is a target for armed groups. Timber, charcoal, palm oil, cannabis, poaching, illegal taxation of populations, road checkpoints. The list is seemingly endless. Evidence of this is to be found in the fact that armed groups’ reliance on the mineral trade is widely acknowledged to be decreasing, but the level of conflict is not. So you can clean up the mineral supply chain, but – if you don’t address the conflict’s root causes – the violence and extortion will simply be shifted elsewhere. You may have a mining site producing ‘clean’ minerals, but as soon as the money generated by those minerals seeps into the local economy and other sectors, armed groups will find ways of getting their share. It’s naïve and simplistic to assume or hope otherwise.

Thirdly, putting mining sector reform before governance reform is to put the proverbial cart before the horse. As Séverine Autesserre, a leading academic on the Congo, has pointed out, Congolese state officials – including members of the army, police, and administration – are today responsible for the largest part of all human rights violations. [1] Yet it is these very officials who are currently empowered and entrusted as the ultimate arbiters in determining whether a mine’s minerals are fit for export to the international market or not. In the context of Autesserre’s observation, this is to replace one rotten apple with another. Until wider governance reform takes place, it is difficult to see how mining sector reform focusing on punitive measures will lead to an improvement in the daily lives of the Congolese.

Is cleaning up the mineral supply chain in the eastern DRC a worthwhile endeavour? Yes, of course it is. Ensuring mining sites conform to fundamental human rights and labour rights standards is important work, and in any case, whether the country likes it or not, it must now conform to international norms and standards for mineral exportation. However, it should not be confused or conflated with bringing peace to the region or diminishing levels of conflict and violence. Ultimately, the conflict is profoundly political in nature, and will require political – not technical – solutions. Solutions that must be sought and found thousands of kilometres outside of the eastern DRC itself, in the country’s capital, Kinshasa.

As long as the camera of the international community remains focused on the relationship between the mineral sector and the conflict, the rest of the picture is lost, and it’s possible to fool oneself into believing in the centrality of the conflict minerals agenda to resolving the conflict and lowering levels of violence. But if we widen the lens and bring the whole picture into focus, the work to ‘clean up’ the eastern Congo’s mineral supply chains begins to look less like a priority peace-building strategy, and more like Nero fiddling while Rome continues to burn.

Ben Radley is a British researcher focusing on the Great Lakes Region of Africa with a particular interest in labour rights and the labour movement. He is also a producer of the upcoming, feature-length documentary Obama’s Law (, a film to explore the impact of the conflict minerals campaign on communities, the economy and the conflict in the eastern DRC.

[1] Autesserre, Séverine (2012): Dangerous Tales: Dominant Narratives on the Congo and their Unintended Consequences, in: African Affairs Vol.111, No. 443, pp. 202–222.

17 Responses to “Amani Itakuya #6: The Conflict Minerals Agenda – Looking For Peace in the Wrong Place”
  1. dominique says:

    Ben (Radley), you are Swiss, If you really want to check that The “Coopératives Minières artisannales from DRC, and therefore the East Congo Populatitions are really paid of what they really deserve for their “Richesses Minières from East DRC”, Make swiss banks to pay them 100% of what we pay them at regular international price (Central Bank of Congo allow we pay not only DRC banks but foreighn banks Bank centale du Congo “agreed”) … on Bureau Veritas Swiss originated Inspection Q & Q certification results (already controlling Imports and Exports DRC valuations done by OCC : Office Congolais de Contrôle), instead accepting to be “blindly” manipulated “by Londed indeed” / Usa Rwanda/ NGOs/ ITRI-ITCSI, de facto plaundering these East DRC “Coopératives minières artisanales” / East DRC Populations, and maintaining “Rwanda exported Conflict in East DRC to do it.

  2. dominique says:

    This DRC legislation providing a “de facto traceability from Mine” as buying from “Titulaires des droits Miniers” = “Coopératives Minières agréées par le Ministère des Mines de DRC” their “production” who “de facto is certified to be Conflict Free” by Governement of DRC : because ” ”This reflects the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Government position:because there is no conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Certificate of Origin can be delivered by the National Center of Expertise (CNE)”This is official from the Ministry of Mines “.

    For that as for all i pretend there I can bring “email proofs” and references/text of the laws from the “concerned Actors” (Banque Centrale du Congo, DRC ministry of Mines, etc etc … ). Dont NGOs want to check it, and so checked that since years, they have been manipulated/ instrumented by USA and those – as ITRI, ITCSI etc … who call themselves “London Indeed”

  3. dominique says:

    I want to pinpoint too that DRC legislation is very well done to manage that “Coopératives Minières artisanales” even not-ITCSI tagged = uner “de facto US embargo”, but “agréées” by the Minister of Mines could export themselves their “Production”, and for “International Buyers” as we are have to pays them 100% in Banks “agréées and controlled by Banque Centrale du Congo) in international currencies (in Euros now – no longer USD$ – to avoid US sanctions by infringing their US de facto Embargo) = not allowed to pay nor in CASH? nor to “intermediaries” who usually take from them the greater part of our buying price. So, this DRC regulation is well done for this East DRC Populations could benefit from their “Richesses Minières” who brought them only a kind of “damnation” and sufferings since 20 years. … but, as we recently have checked, the only problem is that DRC rules have NEVER been used, by these “Coopératives Minières agréées” nor if it was only once to export directly nor if it was only a 1st 22 Tons container : Usually, Coopératives Minières agréées dont even ever have a bank account. They are used to take the CASH only.

  4. dominique says:

    I will call you, as you give your phone number, but welcome if you want to mail me too. I am closely following this matter since 15 years and dealing the East DRC Coltan with China since 7 years – so having the view from an “insider” of this “market” – having never been abble to buy it from RDC directly (though i try it again these days), but always having had to buy it from others around laundering CIRGL countries, till before 2012. Since then, Rwanda had recovered the monopoly of this laundering profit because of this ITCSI/ITRI tagging System. I can proove by mail exchanges with all these “actors” that this “cool story” is anything else but not “cool” at all. To make it short, DRC Cooperative of Artisanal Miners could get back at maximum around 500.000 USD$ per 22 Tons container of the 1 Million USD$ we pay it … but since 2012, they cant even get this as before, when “fakely exported” as if it was from Origin Uganda, Tanzania or Zambian to avoid the even worse rwandan “racket”& plaunder, because of their “lower quality Certificate of Origin” than the “true fake ones that are the Rwanda ITCSI tags”. “De facto” the only “not-Conflict free” Coltan is the Rwanda ITCSI Tagged one, as Rwanda is the country “exporting and maintaing” this “Conflict” in East RDC to maintain their “prosperity since 20 years” because of the profit they have in laundering the East RDC Coltan to become “conflict-free” when laundered by rwandan ITCSI tags”, from the 400 rwandan Mines (which not even exists for most of them) ITRI has labelled to be ITSCI Taggable .

  5. dominique says:

    The “mechanism” of this is that ITRI/ITCSI have labelled 400 Rwandan Mines (which dont even really exists) “laundering” these Est Congo 3T minerals to be conflict free. Rwanda “has to” maintain the Conflict in East DRC as conditioning their “Prosperity” since 20 years by having been given by USA the monopoly of this laundering profit between the miserable plundered price they buy (when not directly stollen by their so financed various “rebels”) in DRC because of this “de facto US embargo”, and the high international market price they sell when Rwanda “laundered” to be conflict-Free.

  6. It has become quite common for defenders of the conflict minerals campaign to suggest that it resembles the divestment campaign of the 1980s. Just as divestment imposed real, tangible costs on the South African economy but ultimately proved worth the price, so, they say, the conflict minerals campaign will eventually prove to have been worth the temporary economic dislocations it has caused.
    I agree that the comparison to the divestment campaign is instructive. But it is not the similarities of the campaigns that strike me so much their differences. For one, the anti-apartheid activists were acting in solidarity with South Africa’s moral and political leaders. Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu urged Western countries to divest from South Africa. In calling for their universities and companies to divest, Western activists were following the lead of South Africans rather than fashioning a solution of their own. In the case of conflict minerals, by contrast, the activists consistently brushed aside the concerns of informed local leaders. Second, the divestment campaign targeted the right people with the right incentives: The leaders of apartheid South Africa saw themselves as representatives of European civilization. They could therefore be shamed by a Western-led campaign aimed at stigmatizing them. By contrast, the horizons of Mai Mai Sheka or Mutomboki are entirely local. It is safe to say that they do not care what Western starlets think of them. Finally, the divestment campaign was based on a clear theory of change: It pitted ageing pro-apartheid politicians against South Africa’s business elite, who wanted an end to international isolation so they could go back to making money. With conflict minerals, just the opposite is true: By sidelining legitimate business interests, DF-1502 inadvertently—but predictably—put money and power into the hands of the very worst groups, with consequences we continue to see.
    For more of my thoughts on the conflict minerals campaign, see my testimony before Congress, here:

  7. Anand Upadhyaya says:

    Thanks so much for responding, Ben. I am glad the tenor of this discussion is so productive. I find myself sort of in the middle. In terms of contributing to peace, I am referring mostly to shifting incentives for key players. When I hear noted analysts (like Jason for example) say that there is a shift in incentives towards minerals, I am left thinking that changing that incentive could have at least some cascade effect. I can’t say exactly how much this would affect the overall conflict, but it seems like part of the puzzle. I need to learn more about how armed group funding would shift without minerals, as you describe with FDLR. But then, every group functions differently and has different agendas.

    Thank you for the work you have done in the mining sector to improve conditions. Mining conditions often get lost in the conversation.

  8. Ben says:

    Hi all, thanks for taking the time to read and respond to my article.

    Deepforestgreen – I would agree that no one is that naive. But my impression is that most people involved at an activist (and even policy) level do believe it will contribute to ending the conflict. That while not a silver bullet, they believe it’s an important if not vital step in the right direction. I see it as as important work for improved human and labour rights in the mining sector (if implemented with an appreciation for and understanding of the context, which is where Dodd-Frank 1502 went so badly wrong), but I don’t see how it relates to peace-building. I guess that’s ultimately where a lot of people may disagree with me, such as you and Anand. It’s a long discussion!

    David – Are you able to provide a link or reference to where your information and data on the mines and armed group revenue is from? I’m not aware of such a comprehensive assessment of ‘conflict minerals’ mines, and would certainly be interested to read this work. In any case, groups such as FDLR have shown themselves able to adjust and move into other sectors and activities pretty quickly and without any noticeable downsizing in their operations that can be attributed to decreased mineral revenue. Which is where I think the analogy with South Africa falls apart. That was economic sanctions across all sectors to weaken the state, here we’re talking about applying international standards to one sector in one part of the country to strengthen the state. Plus, the South African government didn’t have the option of smuggling their goods across borders to sell in neighbouring countries while continuing to reap the rewards. Armed groups in the eastern Congo do, hence the thriving black market in minerals we’re now seeing emerge in the region. For me, there aren’t enough compelling similarities between the two situations – and far too many differences – to draw any policy-oriented conclusions. I think a more appropriate analogy here is the US’s efforts to weaken the Taliban in Afghanistan by cutting off their access to poppy revenue, which played at the time a similar role for the Taliban as minerals do/did for armed groups in the eastern Congo. It had no impact on the Taliban’s operations or economic model, but destroyed poppy farmers’ livelihoods and local economies.

    Anand – From a human and labour rights perspective, I do genuinely believe improving mineral supply chains is important work for the mining sector – I worked on it myself from Bukavu for a number of years – but I am yet to be convinced that it bears any connection to lowering levels of conflict or contributing to peace. I completely agree though on the importance of supporting, listening to and empowering Congolese in the east in creating solutions to problems they themselves define. Incidentally, this is exactly what should have been done prior to the passing of Dodd-Frank 1502, but wasn’t. A big mistake, the consequences of which are still being felt across the region.

  9. Anand Upadhyaya says:

    Ethuin and David,

    Thank you for starting this very important discussion. (And thank you Ben for writing). I see the point that it would be very hard to implement cleaning up the mineral supply chain. This partially relates to the continual and faulty expectation that the gov’t in Kinshasa is apt to participate sincerely in such a processes and that it is currently possible to navigate around armed groups to implement such action. I do see your point, David, about the sometimes seemingly overstated “non-importance” of minerals in the conflict. In the interview Ben linked, Jason says that minerals are the most valuable commodity in the east and that the incentives of various players shifted in the late 90s towards minerals and away from security and other issues. He also says that a large chunk of the conflict economy is minerals, but in the end they are still part of a bigger picture. However, there seems to be some overstatement on both sides of the mineral debate.

    Again, I would ask, how would the role of actors like Rwanda be diminished if minerals were not an issue. It seems that the climate for the conflict would still be ripe, and other modes of financing would still exist, but perhaps the overall incentives for some actors would be significantly diminished. I feel that we sometimes blur the lines between discussing the ROLE of minerals in the conflict and the PRESCRIPTIONS regarding minerals (like Dodd-Frank).

    My biggest concern regarding this debate is that we sometimes have it in front of bodies like the US congress. It seems imperative that those of us in advocacy resolve these issues within our own community, lest we present a dis-unified message to others. Still wrapping my head around all of this. Thanks for the insights everyone.

  10. ethuin says:

    Dear all, thanks for engaging in discussions on that blog. For my two cents, dear David, your critique of the piece unfortunately also lacks sufficient evidential basis. For instance, on of the most striking problems relating to mineral governance and regulation in DRC is that regardless whether the latter (even in the form of sanctions) could actually work on the ground, there is so far no reason to belief that it is implementable in an all-emcompassing manner. And as long this does not change, there will always be side-effects that outweigh the benefit of such ideas. Let alone the monopolisation threats and the danger of creating regulated islands in an unregulated sea. You may note in my wording why this could be fatal.

  11. Anand Upadhyaya says:

    I completely agree that prioritizing other initiatives over governance reform is a miscalculation. This would include security sector reform and lackluster electoral reform as well. I also agree with some of the analysis regarding the role of minerals in the conflict. I wonder, though, if we sometimes understate their role in response to other’s overstatement. I am curious whether the motivation of actors like Kigali would be diminished somewhat if minerals were not a factor. Is it accurate to say that, “cleaning up the mineral supply chain in the eastern DRC has nothing to do with achieving or contributing to peace,” or is it more accurate to say that it doesn’t have AS MUCH to do with achieving peace as some might advocate?

    I also agree very much that Kinshasa must play a large role in peace. I do think that we need to focus on empowering Congolese in the east as well. A focused movement from this population seems to be a necessary catalyst to pushing Kinshasa to take responsible action. Very thought provoking article. Thank you for writing!

  12. David Akerson says:

    You are too kind DeepForestGreen. Radley’s article is neither good nor well-written. It is a propaganda piece meant to sell a documentary.

    It would be ludicrous for any effort to contribute to the ending of the bloodshed and misery in the DRC to describe itself as a “panacea.” And it is equally ludicrous to expect that we should refrain from engaging in any efforts unless it represents a panacea. The profound DRC crisis will require many different strategies, some of them which will not be successful. But certainly one of them is ending of the flow of money the armed groups get from the four conflict minerals.

    It is equally ridiculous to suggest that cleaning up the mineral supply chain will have “nothing to do with achieving or contributing to peace.” Nothing? 12 of the 13 major mines were controlled by rebel forces at one time, and they derived 190 million dollars from that control. One-half of the 200 conflict mineral mines were controlled by rebel forces. While they might get revenue from other criminal activities, it is inconceivable that the loss of 190 million would not hamper their operations.

    I heard similar arguments to Radley’s during the 1980s Apartheid sanctions debate, when folks argued against imposing economic sanctions against the South African government. President Reagan was amongst the most vocal critics, stating that “Punitive sanctions, I believe, are not the best course of action; they hurt the very people they are intended to help.” He went on to add that “It must be recognized, however, that [economic sanctions] will not solve the serious problems that plague that country.” He went on to argue that a comprehensive political solution was needed, just a Radley argues above.

    Reagan was wrong. Sanctions helped. They were not a panacea, but one weapon in the fight. And it turned out to be a powerful weapon that yielded one enormous totally unanticipated benefit – Sanctions served to educate US lawmakers, clarified and crystallized opinion in the US and in the end positively changed the dialogue. All this occurred regardless of how much economic damage was ultimately caused by sanctions.

    David Akerson

  13. Good article, well written. Look forward to your film. Hope it addresses *how* exactly to implement widespread governance reform. Far as conflict mineral rulings, I think you must appreciate how much attention Dodd Frank S 1502 has brought to issues in the DRC & surrounding nations. I can’t believe anyone thinks 3TGs (conflict minerals) are the whole story and their regulation will suddenly quell the deadliest war since World War II. No one is that naive.

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