The Institute for Security Studies is a regional human security policy think tank with an exclusive focus on Africa. As a leading African human security research institution, the institute is guided by a broad approach to security reflective of the changing nature and origin of threats to human development.
The term ‘conflict minerals’ has been used in reference to minerals that have been linked to financing conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). These minerals are tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold with the first three from the respective ores of columbite-tantalite, cassiterite and wolframite. The debate over conflict minerals in the Great Lakes region has captured centre stage with the mushrooming of international, regional and national initiatives directed at stopping the flow of the said minerals through a variety of supply chain traceability and disclosure reporting mechanisms. Illegal exploitation of these minerals has indeed been linked to armed conflict in the DRC, but this seemingly one-track focus on conflict minerals has created a silo effect neglecting the systemic issues of regional conflict and insecurity that gave rise to this phenomenon.
While stemming the flows of these minerals will likely impact on financing of armed conflict, it is no panacea for the violent conflict and insecurity that plagues the Great Lakes region. If we consider conflict in the Great Lakes as a system, it would consist of parts such as historical grievances, unresolved trauma, socio-economic deprivation and political failure. As a consequence of inadequate political, security and economic administration, conflict minerals are but a part of this system. To be effective and sustainable, efforts to tackle conflict minerals should be mainstreamed into wider conflict transformation strategies addressing the systemic core causes of conflict in the region.
Comparing the tepid engagement of the international community during DRC’s recently concluded election polls, to the earnest debates on conflict minerals from the Great Lakes, the focus seems to be biased towards a single dynamic in isolation of the systemic conflict issues in the region. Arguably, the objective of the conflict minerals debate in the Great Lakes region is not to resolve all parts of the conflict system, however a failure of the initiatives to engage with other elements of the conflict system will be akin to pruning a diseased tree in lieu of uprooting it.
Some of the major initiatives to curb conflict minerals include section 1502 of the US Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, due diligence guidelines of both the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Regional Initiative on Natural Resources (RINR) of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). The European Union is also advocating greater compliance with the OECD due diligence guidelines. With a particular focus on the Great Lakes countries, the section 1502 in the US Dodd-Frank Act requires companies listed in the US that are sourcing minerals from DRC and neighbouring countries to issue a public report on their supply chain due diligence to determine if their minerals are ‘DRC conflict free’. The due diligence guidelines of the UN and OECD, also recommend supply chain traceability. RINR of ICGLR is the regional approach that focuses on the six aspects of certification, harmonisation, database, formalisation, peer learning and whistleblowing.
Certain limitations to these initiatives will impact on their feasibility. Most striking is the lack of attention in any of the initiatives towards addressing or collaborating with stakeholders who are addressing security and socio-economic challenges on which conflict minerals are hinged. However, looking at the initiatives exclusively from the objectives, which they portend, there are still limitations to their projected efficacy. For instance, none of these initiatives actually expressly prohibit mining from conflict areas or trading in conflict minerals. When mining in conflict areas, the emphasis is on disclosure and demonstrable efforts at mitigation as in the case of the due diligence guidelines of the OECD and the UN. Without any prohibitions, it then becomes a case of willing seller, willing buyer. If a buyer has no concern as to the origin of the minerals, then the trade of conflict minerals will persist albeit less visibly. It will be business as usual for countries or companies not bound by national legislation or disinclined to adhere to recommendations of the international bodies.
Similarly, the lack of harmonisation of these initiatives may create onerous or supplementary demands on a mining sector that already has significant challenges like unregulated artisanal mining. Without appropriate coordination and harmonisation, these well meaning laws and guidelines which require implementation and collaboration from a local level, will struggle to remain relevant to the realities of the mining industry.
Unintended consequences will also negatively impact on the dynamics of the conflict. First, as conflict minerals are not the only source of funding for illegally armed groups, what is likely to occur is a diversification of conflict financing with adverse effects on local populations and the region as a whole. They will then diversify their fund raising activities like illegal taxation, illegal trade in timber and raiding local populations. Second, conflict minerals initiatives target specific constituencies whose compliance will temporarily create a gap that will likely be filled by unscrupulous actors who are not bound by similar mineral regulations thus further accenting global market disparities. Third, companies that have to comply with new regulations and guidelines may find the requirements burdensome enough to be dissuaded from investing in the mineral industry of the Great Lakes region. This will be bad for local and regional economies stigmatising minerals from DRC and adjoining countries. Fourth, as energies are harnessed to eliminate trade in conflict minerals, advocacy efforts will inadvertently be derailed from core causes of the systemic conflict in the Great Lakes.
Conflict transformation in the Great Lakes region should go beyond the occurrence of conflict minerals to core causes including unresolved historical grievances and trauma, corruption, inadequate security provision, socio-economic deprivation and inadequate state capacity to govern effectively. While initiatives to address conflict minerals cannot realistically address all the various core causes of conflict, they must remain cognisant of the limitations of a one-track approach that seeks to transform just a part of a complex conflict system. Initiatives must seek to engage with relevant stakeholders on systemic issues such as political and security administration, socio-economic development, democracy and governance, to ensure that the conflict minerals debate does not become an isolated issue. Governments and civil society organisation in the region should seek to influence the on-going debates to ensure greater consideration is paid to systemic issues beyond industry and external stakeholders interests.
Written by Nyambura Githaiga, Researcher, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Nairobi