With Tuesday’s news of factional fighting among the main M23 rebel group in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it’s important to remember that the conflict there has international implications sometimes obscured by the depressing regional narrative. Namely, DRC provides the world with an assortment of mineral resources including coltan, which is used in all manner of consumer electronics (64 – 80% of the world’s coltan reserves are said to be in the DRC) — and these minerals are, in the current regional situation, of suspect provenance. The so-called “conflict minerals” approach — i.e., awareness-raising campaigns aimed at multinationals and global consumers about the sources of the raw materials that go into their goods and their potential ability to fuel and further conflict — has had some effect here: In 2011, both Apple and Intel decided to stop using conflict minerals from central Africa in the manufacture of their products as part of the Conflict-Free Smelter Program and in accordance with Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
While the concept enjoys a measure of cultural currency and credibility among sociopolitical elites — though if the E.U.’s recent decision on Zimbabwe’s diamond sanctions is any indication, that might be fading — it does not work in isolation. And the obsession with it among the well-intentioned activist population may mask much larger issues that need to be addressed in the DRC — specifically, the now well-documented role and culpability of Uganda and Rwanda in the conflict in the DRC. A U.N. report implicated Rwanda explicitly and Uganda in a more subtle fashion in supporting the M23 in eastern DRC. Rwanda is said to have been instrumental in the formation and leadership of the group and Uganda hosts the political wing of the organization in its capital Kampala. (This is a rebel group that has been accused of murder, rape, and recruiting child soldiers.) The chaotic situation in the eastern part of DRC has allowed for Rwanda and Uganda to operate with impunity via proxy in this resource rich land. Both are major transit routes for illicit minerals coming from the DRC and both are major exporters of minerals like coltan and gold, which generate massive wealth and which they possess little of within their borders.
The conflict mineral crowd has been silent on these transgressions by Uganda and Rwanda. It has also been silent on targeting the multinationals that are directly involved in the exploitation of minerals in the Congo, those that purchase the resources and facilitate their processing into essential parts for resale to companies like Nokia, Motorola, Dell, among others, for use in popular consumer electronics. While activists target Nokia et al — the end-users, so to speak — the companies more directly involved in the minerals trade like Bayer A.G. of Germany and Cabot Corporation of the U.S. go more or less unquestioned and unshamed, despite the fact that the names of these companies have been readily available for nearly a decade in a U.N. report on the exploitation of Congolese resources.
It is easy to get caught up in the activist fervor drummed up by slick campaigns aimed at companies with high-profile brands. But to address this issue a more comprehensive and perhaps more difficult approach is necessary. It would not call for the militarization of the region that is often one of the default solutions that many a human-rights organization gravitates towards. It would instead include a robust political approach characterized by hard diplomacy by the African Union and strong allies of Uganda and Rwanda like the U.S. and U.K., following the U.N.’s lead in publishing the Rwanda culpability report. Uganda and Rwanda also need to be held accountable for their role in the conflict despite the fact that both nations enjoy political support in the West. The U.K., U.S., and the Netherlands have withheld small amounts of aid to Rwanda over alleged backing of rebels, but deeper sanctions are needed to inspire both Uganda and Rwanda into further action. A new approach would also call for the investigation of the multinationals closer in the supply chain to the mines. It’s less glamorous, to be sure, and therefore may suffer a deficit of attention from trend-seeking activists and a consequent PR disadvantage. But even if the fragile-seeming DRC peace deal inked over the weekend does hold, this problem will remain unsolved under the current activist framework. And if it doesn’t hold, the DRC’s conflict minerals problem — and by extension the culpability of the global consuming class — will only grow.