Washington — Several international companies are named as helping to prolong the more than 12-year conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in a new report by the British-based group Global Witness, released Tuesday.
Titled "Faced with a gun, what can you do?", it details how many mining areas in eastern DRC are controlled by rebels and the national army, who violently exploit civilians to retain access to valuable minerals. It names international companies which buy from suppliers who trade in minerals from the warring parties.
European and Asian companies, including Bangkok-based THAISARCO, Britain-based Afrimex, and Belgium-based Trademet, have been buying minerals from the DRC that are funding armed groups and fuelling conflict, said Global Witness.
Informed by on-the-ground investigations and interviews in North and South Kivu, the report reveals that despite being on opposing sides, the national Congolese army, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC) and rebel groups, in particular the Forces Democratique de Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), regularly cooperate with each other, carving up territory and occasionally sharing the spoils of illegal mining.
The FDLR use roads controlled by the FARDC, and vice versa, without difficulty. Minerals produced by the FDLR are sent out through local airports controlled by the FARDC in South Kivu.
"(The FARDC and the FDLR) don't attack each other. Where both are present, they share the spoils and both extort from the population," a human rights activist told Global Witness last year.
The unregulated nature of the mining sector in eastern DRC, combined with the breakdown of law and order and the devastation caused by the war, has meant that these groups have had unrestricted access to these minerals and have been able to establish lucrative trading networks.
"(The report) shows the extent to which the Congolese government is incapable not only of controlling the mineral-rich areas, but also of controlling its own army that is profiting from the mineral trade at expense of the state," David Sullivan, a research associate at the Enough Project, told IPS.
He added that mine inspectors often cannot do their job because they have not been paid their salaries, or "do not have the resources to travel to mines". Once they do arrive, they are prevented from inspecting the mines with threats of violence.
"The Congolese government needs more assistance in order to be able to oversee the trade, but it is not the only actor," said Sullivan, adding that companies that continue to profit from the trade must be held accountable.
"As long as we don't change the way we go about purchasing these things economic incentives will override" the need for greater transparency, he added.
The profits armed groups make from their illegal control of the mines allow them to survive, as they pay for arms. To sustain this control, the main warring parties have carried out horrific human rights abuses, including widespread killings of unarmed civilians, rape, torture and looting, recruitment of child soldiers to fight in their ranks, and forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, the report said.
"All the warring parties in the DRC are systematically using forced labour and violent extortion in mining areas," said Patrick Alley, director of Global Witness. "Despite recent political and military developments, including the apparent rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda, violence against unarmed civilians is continuing and countless lives are lost each day."
Years of unrest have plagued the DRC. Following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled across the border into the DRC, as the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front conquered the country. The conflict has resulted in an estimated 5.4 million deaths over the past decade.
This link between armed groups and the illicit mineral trade was also documented by a United Nations panel of experts in December 2008.
The "conflict minerals" at the centre of the violence include cassiterite, coltan and wolframite, which are moved from the DRC, usually through Rwanda or Burundi, to East Asia where they are processed into valuable metals, like tin and tungsten, needed for electronics products.
One of the companies featured in the report is THAISARCO, the world's fifth-largest tin-producing company, owned by British metals giant, Amalgamated Metal Corporation (AMC). THAISARCO's main supplier, Congo-based Panju, sells cassiterite and coltan from mines controlled by the FDLR.
Another company is the British-based Afrimex, already found by the British government in 2008 to be in breach of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises for buying from suppliers who made payments to a rebel group. The British government has yet to take any concrete action on this information.
Global Witness wrote to 200 companies and found that most had no controls in place to stop conflict minerals entering their supply chain.
AMC denied any wrongdoing, saying that it operated under U.N. guidelines.
"Both AMC and Thaisarco have always sought to comply with the requirements and recommendations of the U.N. in respect of minerals originating in the DRC," the company said in a statement. "In accordance with this, Thaisarco purchases DRC minerals subject to a recently enhanced, formal and detailed due diligence programme which ultimately is aimed at providing transparency throughout the supply chain."
In a letter to Global Witness in January, F. Muylaert of the Belgian company Trademet said, "Your hypothesis according to which we should verify the exact origin of every kilo of exported material is inappropriate in the current context in Congo."
The report points out that comptoirs - trading houses based in Goma and Bukavu - which buy, sell and export minerals produced by or benefiting the warring parties are officially licensed and registred with the Congolese government. Foreign companies use the "legal" status of their suppliers as justification for continuing to trade with them, without verifying the exact origin of the minerals or the identity of intermediaries.
"It is not good enough for companies to say they buy only from licensed exporters, when they know full well that their middlemen buy from armed groups," argued Alley
The report said that foreign governments, including Britain and Belgium, are undermining their own development assistance and diplomatic efforts to end the 12-year conflict by failing to crack down on companies based within their borders.
Global Witness contends that the governments of Rwanda and Burundi have failed to acknowledge that these minerals are fueling conflict and have not held to account companies in their country which engage in this trade.
"The failure of governments to hold companies to account, of Burundi and Rwanda to restrict the trade across their borders, and of donors and diplomats to address explicitly the role of the mineral trade, have all contributed to the continuation of a conflict that has killed millions and displaced many more," said Alley.