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Blood Coltan: Guns and Exploitation in North Kivu

Sep 21, 2012 Written by  Patrick McQuillan, Guest Contributor

4803042042 ce61e3b1e6The presence of illicit small arms and light weapons (SALW) in Central Africa has dealt a major blow to the stability of human security in Africa. Covertly traded SALW such as AK-47s, rifles, and rocket-propelled grenades have exacerbated existing conflicts and fueled humanitarian atrocities that have been perpetuated through the excessive availability of these weapons and their tendency to fall into the wrong hands. This issue proves particularly prevalent in North Kivu, a mineral-rich province on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The DRC and its century-long history of conflict have given rise to a longstanding resource war for control of the nation’s vast mineral wealth.

Among the most valuable of these conflict minerals is coltan. Short for “columbite-tantalite,” coltan is a rare metallic ore that is cultivated and processed into tantalum - a vital component used in computer chips. The accessibility of SALW, bolstered by an inherent lack of governmental stability, has galvanized illicit coltan trading in North Kivu. Coltan is often mined illegally within the DRC and either smuggled into neighboring states or immediately sold to corporate electronics suppliers at a substantial economic and humanitarian cost. Warring armed groups that have arisen from the DRC and its neighboring states vie for commercial control of North Kivu’s coltan mines in a self-financed resource war motivated predominantly for monetary gain. Civilians are frequently recruited against their will to mine coltan deposits in a social context of violence and severe human rights abuses, receiving considerably low wages for their labor as armed militias reap large profits. The international community has responded to these crises, but its capacity to provide assistance has so far been limited. Despite multilateral efforts to legitimize coltan mining in North Kivu and regulate the flow of SALW, legal and normative measures must be taken internally by the DRC and its principal trading partners if any longstanding policies are to be effective.

The major arms suppliers in North Kivu constitute a large spectrum of various militant groups and non-state actors. These arms transfers generally occur under a shroud of secrecy and are therefore difficult to trace. Most people in the eastern DRC furtively purchase weapons from the Parti National Congolaise or the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo--criminals and rebel movements who have smuggled arms from neighboring countries such as Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda--or directly from black market providers. These arms are then used by illicit coltan traders to enforce mining operations or by households to oppose them.

This crisis, particularly the situation in North Kivu, presents one of the highest existing threats to human security. Despite substantial efforts from UN peacekeeping forces and non-governmental organizations, impunity and human rights abuses persist as SALW are pumped into the system. Eastern DRC is currently infested with over a dozen warring armed groups that compete for mineral wealth, and governmental authorities cannot be spared from culpability. Corrupt government officials and factions from official state armies also commit grave human rights abuses that include mass murders, forcible recruitment of child soldiers, and widespread looting in order to impose societal fractures that ameliorate their insatiable ventures for resource monopolies. Countless cases of sexual violence facilitated by SALW and financed by coltan operations are profuse and appalling. Rape and sexual abuse by armed groups in the DRC are habitually conducted through means intended to humiliate the victims and appall communities to the point that they may be kept under control and exploited for labor. These manipulative methods include child abduction, public rape, and rape with the intentional transmission of HIV. This humanitarian crisis is prolonged by the active presence of SALW in an arena where profits from coltan mining are won by the broken shoulders of a delicate many, and the financial prizes fall into the corrupt hands of a dominant few.

SALW have proven to be such a destabilizing force that even the state’s economy has plunged further into stagnation. The economic impact of SALW in the DRC has been extraordinarily injurious to economic development and prolongs Congolese affliction. Minerals are the state’s primary export, thus giving armed groups and corrupt government authorities all the more reason to maximize their hold on the coltan industry. This being said, North Kivu’s ample mineral wealth has been enjoyed by a select and influential few: 71 percent of the DRC population lives below the poverty line while militant leaders tugging at the strings of the war economy benefit from the illegal coltan trade. Numerous deaths in the eastern DRC have been attributed to malnutrition or illness of displaced persons fleeing violence in pursuit of a secure means of earning a living. Laborers are robbed of their livelihoods and forced to either work in mines collecting coltan or attempt to escape as refugees in a near-futile quest for personal economic actualization. Education and health systems - key components for long-term development - have also been under-resourced due to the lack of government funding incurred by instability. According to the CIA, the gross domestic product per capita of the DRC in 2011 was 300USD, accompanied by a progressively decreasing growth rate of 6.5 percent - 0.7 percent lower than in 2010. Among the central causes for the DRC’s slow growth patterns are the forcible partitioning of the country through the use of SALW and the persistent impact of open warfare, which have jointly mired domestic trade among provinces and prevented the free flow of consumer commodities, income, and capital.

The international community has systematically taken legal action to counter the deteriorating effects of coltan mining in North Kivu. Among the numerous UN Security Council resolutions on the DRC conflict, Resolutions 1493 and 1856 have established arms embargoes to control and prevent the illicit trafficking of arms. These two legal instruments jointly comprise a binding international norm against the trade of conflict minerals and the proliferation of SALW in the DRC. Nevertheless, their effectiveness is bound to the dependability of the DRC government, which has thus far been unable to exercise control in North Kivu. Illegal exchanges of SALW persist along the borders of the eastern DRC as illicit coltan dealers operate cross-border smuggling networks to supply buyers and commercial vendors in neighboring states. In response to this frequent lack of accountability, certain countermeasures have been taken to help remedy the causes of the crisis rather than its symptoms. The U.S. Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act - commonly referred to as the “Dodd-Frank Act” - serves as a bastion for this new approach. The Dodd-Frank Act contains a clause that integrates corporate accountability into the scheme of the black market supply chain, demanding that the private sector engage exclusively in trade practices that entail conflict-free minerals. The UN Arms Trade Treaty, which had been negotiated in New York this July, also sought to address the sources of the North Kivu conflict. The Treaty aimed to carefully regulate the global network of illicitly traded SALW that contribute to aggression and human rights abuses worldwide. The Arms Trade Treaty would have considerably improved the situation in the DRC by controlling the influx of SALW, but states could not agree on appropriate terms and debates ultimately resulted in a moratorium.

The humanitarian and developmental crisis encumbering North Kivu’s coltan industry is one of a multifaceted causation that demands a complex and multilateral solution. The key response to this issue lies in the provision of economic security through strict regulation of the sale and trade of coltan and other conflict minerals, as well as the reinforcement of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration measures along the eastern border. Social groups situated within the DRC and international actors alike are mutually obligated to emphasize both state and human security in their actions. They are responsible for championing the enforcement of international humanitarian law and human rights law through effective legal proceedings and media campaigns. Legislation such as the Dodd-Frank Act promotes corporate accountability and due diligence with attention to conflict minerals, while the framework of the Arms Trade Treaty methodically addressed SALW proliferation and its accessibility to hostile parties. States must also work to empower the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC and support its ongoing stabilization operations.

The sources of conflict in North Kivu are being confronted from an economic and humanitarian standpoint, but the effectiveness of these policies relies heavily on the DRC’s willingness and capacity to accept their measures. The DRC must continue to strive for a higher level of security through the comprehensive reconstruction of responsible government institutions and encourage mediation among the numerous armed groups occupying its borders. The perpetuation of the DRC’s internal track of capacity-building and conflict mediation - in cohesion with binding international law - is crucial in effectively improving its acceptability of global moral standards with respect to SALW proliferation and the illicit coltan trade. Only under these conditions can humanitarianism and the rule of international law prevail.

Patrick McQuillan is currently an undergraduate student at Northeastern University, and plans to pursue a career with the United Nations after graduation. He has interned for Senator John F. Kerry, and has conducted weapons research with the United Nations at the Palais de Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

Photo: The ENOUGH Project (cc).



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