End violations associated with conflict in mineral-rich Eastern DRC

Democratic Republic of Congo military personnel (FARDC) patrol near Beni in North-Kivu province, December 31, 2013. [Reuters]

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) recently joined the East African Community (EAC). Soon after, the EAC member states met in Kenya to address conflict in the mineral-rich Eastern DRC that has witnessed many armed conflicts in the past two decades.

There is a transnational struggle to stop human rights violations within the context of mining certain conflict minerals, including Coltan in the DRC. Coltan is considered a conflict mineral alongside Tin, Tungsten, Tantalum and Gold. They are so-called because their exploitation and trade contribute to human rights violations in the country of extraction and surrounding areas.

More than half of global coltan comes from the DRC, which is estimated to have 80 per cent of coltan deposits worldwide. Most mining operations are unregulated and artisanal, meaning that the mining is done by hand or using shovels and hoes to dig tunnels, move dirt and sort the metal in water pans.

Coltan is short for Columbite and Tantalite. The Tantalite part is responsible for tantalum, a key ingredient in today's growing electronic industry. Coltan is used to produce laptops, smartphones, electric vehicles, and medical appliances, among other everyday appliances. As a result, its demand is poised to rise exponentially as new devices are invented (double by 2035). Currently, there is no viable substitute for the substance.

The illicit trade in coltan and other conflict minerals fuels the operations of armed groups partly because of the state's inability to provide sufficient social order resulting proliferation of criminality. The perfect storm that encourages conflict and human rights violations is the easy access to coltan and other minerals, weak institutions and a long history of war coupled with the high demand for their minerals in global markets.

As a result, human rights norms, labour laws, and environmental and safety standards are not followed to the detriment of those working in the mines. Children and teenagers are often used in mining operations in violation of international law and human rights law.

DRC is the largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa, roughly the size of Western Europe. But, sadly, it is also one of the poorest countries in the world and, ironically, one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world, estimated to be worth USD 24 trillion in gold, diamonds, coltan, tin, uranium, oil, et cetera. 

DRC has an exceptionally violent past, including a brutal colonial history marked by widespread atrocities. Furthermore, several wars and conflicts have rendered the country unstable with coups and civil wars. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), DRC is the scene of the worst conflict since WWII, with about 5.4 million deaths.

Conflicts in neighbouring countries often spill over into DRC and vice versa. For example, Uganda and Rwanda have incursions into DRC territory and allegedly taken part in mineral-related crimes recently.

Criminal and terrorist groups have recently begun setting up camp in the DRC, further deteriorating security. For example, the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), which began in Uganda and morphed into a terrorist group in DRC, is now involved in coltan mining.

Kenya and the rest of the EAC members should work together with DRC to ensure that her mineral wealth benefits her citizens instead of warlords, foreign companies and, ultimately, big tech. A 2016 Amnesty International report revealed that corporate giants such as Apple, Dell, HP, Huawei, Samsung, Sony, and Vodafone and vehicle manufacturers like Daimler AG, and Volkswagen, among others, used Coltan from DRC. All our phones and laptops probably contain conflict coltan from DRC.

What can the EAC do to build the capacity of institutions and foster peace, security, and human rights for all and compel big tech to ensure they only use ethically sourced minerals?

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