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“Europe must stop Congolese warlords with a law on conflict minerals”

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DR of Congo. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation.

Europe needs to follow in the footsteps of the United States and adopt a law on the conflict minerals fueling the ongoing conflict in DR Congo, says former UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, in this opinion piece, written together with the Secretary General of the Swedish women and peace organization The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, Lena Ag. New rebel groups, like M23, are once again forcing civilians in eastern Congo to flee for their lives. Groups that are financed by the mineral trading. 

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Behind the vague abbreviation M23 hides a highly sought-after war criminal, a group of feared rebels and a number of armed deserters. And wherever they move, looting, rape and death awaits. Civilians in eastern DRC are hardly hit when Bosco Ntaganda – one of the names already on the UN Security Council’s blacklist – and his supporters kill army soldiers, attack UN peacekeepers, as well as unarmed men, women and children who gets in their way.

When people flee for their lives, children are often separated from their parents. Everything is left behind as the villages are abandoned. We have seen pictures of people brutally and indiscriminately slaughtered, and those who survive bare witness of rape and other horrific abuses.

Rebels were integrated in the national army

M stands for March and 23 is the date when the Congolese government in 2009 signed an agreement with the rebel group CNDP, consisting mainly of Tutsi rebels from Rwanda, many of whom fought with the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) which ended the genocide in 1994. Promising an end to the fighting, the CNDP would be integrated into the national army and get the appropriate military designations, positions in the government and administration, as well as the right to stay in North and South Kivu in eastern Congo. That was how the Congolese government came to accept that offenders like Bosco Ntaganda, and the likes of him, were given high positions in the national army. This allowed them to gain financial control over mining, as well as of various criminal activities. Impunity and the liberation of prisoners from the rebels’ own ranks, who had been caught by the justice system, became the rule rather than the exception. Their working method is to spread terror and fear among local politicians and campaigners for human rights. In fact, during Bosco’s reign of terror, Eastern Congo has become impossible to control.

New groups attacking civilians

But the government’s promises to the CNDP have not been met and the disorder following the last – strongly contested – Presidential elections made the discontent grow stronger. A number of CNDP officers left the army and quickly took control of several villages along the border with Rwanda.

And as if the offensives by the M23 were not enough, new constellations are now being formed with the Mai-Mai rebels and other groups – all of which attack and feed off civilians; raping, murdering, and doing whatever it takes to gain control of the mines that can finance the purchase of more arms.

Conflict minerals used in electronics

The so-called conflict minerals, including the three “t’s”: tungsten, tin and tantalum, in addition to gold – are currently indispensable in electronics manufacturing, such as computers and cell phones – and have become Congo’s greatest asset, but also its curse. These natural resources fund and perpetuate the conflict in eastern Congo, allowing what best can be described as slave labor, including sexual slavery, and giving very little back to the local communities.

The UN Security Council has of course repeatedly discussed the situation in eastern Congo. The Government of Rwanda has also been criticized – even by the United States – for its role as a supporter of the M23. The new Congolese government has, so far, failed to mobilize either internal efforts, or international support to effectively prevent those acts of violence. We are worried about a reaction that would pave a way for a “banalisation of evil”; for a sort of despair or hopelessness; for laconic reports about untold sufferings of entirely innocent and unprotected people; for a world that can no longer handle the responsibility of caring about the number of victims in eastern Congo. But practical policies exists that would help bring an end to violence.

European law to tackle the war economy

We demand a European law on conflict minerals, one like the US law, that would help tackle the war economy, which today fuels the conflict. We want to ensure that the trade paths of these commodities are identified, impose on importers and manufacturers the responsibility of tracking and reporting were the minerals are coming from, and start building a global certification system.

We are aware of the difficulties of implementing the US’s legislation and of predicting the impact of this legislation on the local communities. We have heard concerns that stricter regulations in practice could lead to a boycott of minerals from Eastern Congo, which would affect already struggling miners. But the purpose of the legislation is to decrease revenues to the warlords, who feed off the conflict and who are responsible for the appalling human rights abuses taking place.

The law would help make visible, both to purchasers and consumers, what conflict minerals are, as well as create incentives for the industry to develop a healthier and more sustainable trading system. And what is the alternative? The political signal has already had an effect, and it would only grow stronger if Europe, especially within the EU, partners with the United States on the issue of conflict minerals. There are already some voluntary initiatives by the electronics industry, and as consumers we can only keep pushing forward, for example, by requiring companies that use these ingredients in their products to account for where they come from.

So, what are we waiting for?

Margot Wallström
Former UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict

Lena Ag
Secretary General, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation

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