DR-Congo: EU Urged to Ban ‘Conflict Minerals’

Source: IPS News 

(IPS) – After the United States senate’s move to stem the flow of money from mineral mines fuelling the brutal civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the watchdog group Global Witness (GW) is calling on Europe to follow suit.

"We are calling on the European Union (EU) to introduce legislation to exclude conflict minerals from eastern DRC coming into the European market," Lizzie Parsons from GW, an international organisation investigating the links between natural resource exploitation and human rights abuses, told IPS.

According to GW, armed groups control much of the mineral trade in the eastern DRC. These armed groups profit from the multi-million dollar mineral trade by forcibly controlling the mines and exacting bribes or taxes. Those buying the "conflict minerals" include companies based in EU member states.

The role of the mineral trade has been recognised as one of the factors fuelling the violence and contributing to human rights violations in eastern DRC since the start of the war.

Human rights activists have long called attention to how "conflict minerals" are sold to purchase arms by rebel groups that regularly commit horrific abuses against civilian populations, including mass murder, rape, torture and forced recruitment.

Over the last few months, GW gathered information in the region and visited mines that are under the control of armed groups.

Parsons says the armed groups would have been a lot poorer and much less well-armed without the trade. "We do know that the mineral trade is a significant proportion of their income."

GW is calling on suppliers that source minerals from DRC to identify the mines they come from. They are also recommending spot checks and audits to back these declarations. According to the watchdog group a few companies have made some efforts, but that is not enough.

"The companies’ policies have purely been on paper. And a number of companies, including for example Apple, have not acknowledged the problem at all," Parsons says.

The "conflict minerals" – tin (cassiterite), tantalum (coltan or columbite-tantalite), and tungsten (wolframite) – are, after they are mined, moved from DRC to East Asia where they are processed into valuable metals needed for electronic products. The metals are used in i-pods, digital cameras, cell phones and laptops worldwide.

Global Witness states that, so far, governments have done little to curb the trade in conflict minerals. But last year the U.S. made a move. In May 2009, a draft legislation requiring U.S. companies to disclose the origin of their mineral supplies was introduced in the senate.

According to the EU Special Representative for the African Great Lakes, Roeland van de Geer, the EU has confirmed its commitment to more formal and legal ways of cooperating in the fight against illegal exploitation of conflict minerals.

But so far, the EU has not introduced any legislation to exclude conflict minerals from eastern DRC entering Europe.

"Some experts are suggesting an adapted ‘Kimberly model’, similar to the one regarding diamonds, while others think that it is unlikely that international legal measures would make a contribution to the fight against illegal exploitation of minerals," Van de Geer told IPS.

His office currently serves as the secretariat of a task force on illegal exploitation of natural resources in the east of the DRC.

The United Nations Security Council has passed a resolution paving the way for the imposition of asset freezes and travel bans on companies that support armed groups in eastern DRC via the illicit mineral trade.

The illicit exploitation of natural resources is not a new phenomenon in eastern DRC. It has characterised the conflict since it first erupted in 1996 and has been well documented by non-governmental organisations and the United Nations Panel of Experts.