Make sure there's no African blood on the mobile

Guy Momat Mulongoy

Continuing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo is being fuelled by western companies who are buying the country's minerals without properly checking their origins, according to an international human rights group. And a rare metal at the heart of mobile phones is being bought from murderous troops by unscrupulous Western firms.

Since the outbreak of fighting in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in August 1998, some 5.4 million civilians have died, mostly women and children. It has been the world's deadliest conflict since World War 2.   In 2008 14,000 rapes were recorded, the actual figure is thought to be far greater. In November last year the rebel group CNDP's advance drove a quarter-million people from their homes.

A damning report 110-page report from Global Witness, entitled Faced with a gun, what can you do?', details how companies are buying from suppliers who trade in minerals from the warring parties. Many mining areas in eastern DRC are controlled by rebels and the national army, who violently exploit civilians to retain access to valuable minerals, including cassiterite (tin ore), coltan and gold. Cassiterite and coltan are used to make mobile phones, computers and other electronics, among other things.

Global Witness wrote to 200 companies and found that most had no controls in place to stop "conflict minerals" entering their supply chain. 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 and rebel groups, in particular the FDLR, regularly co-operate with each other, carving up territory and occasionally sharing the spoils of illegal mining.

Patrick Alley, of Global Witness, said: "As long as the warring parties can fund themselves through international trade, they will continue to be able to inflict widespread violence on the population. Breaking the link between minerals and violence must be an integral part of the solution - not something that is looked into once the peace is achieved."

His report specifically names the Thailand Smelting and Refining Corp and Thaisarco, the world fifth largest tin-producing company, owned by British metals giant Amalgamated Metal Corporation. British company Afrimex was found by their own 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. RCD Goma and several Belgian companies, including Trademet and Traxys, have done the same.

Global Witness alleges that these companies are ruthlessly exploiting the raging war in eastern Congo - buying minerals such as coltan, an element used to manufacture heat conductors which are mainly used in electronic goods like cellular phones, jet engines and lap top computers, mined by Rwandan militias in the Congo that have financed their war effort for years in this way.

Another mineral prized by the Western companies is cassiterite a major source of tin. Tin is mostly used to make tinplate for food packaging.   The mineral is particularly sought after because authorities in Europe and Japan forbid the use of lead in electronic goods and so companies use tin instead. Because of the lead prohibitions, tin has reached its highest price in 10 years on the London trading markets.

Tin, like coltan, is also used to manufacture parts for mobile phones and computers. Mobile communication is big business. More than three billion of us in the world own a mobile   phone and sales of handsets alone amounted to a billion worldwide last year. Yet despite the remarkable irreversible impact the mobile phone has had on our lives, very little attention is given to the production process behind the handset. The ethics of mobile phone companies must be called into question.

Global Witness state that governments, including those in the United Kingdom and Belgium, are undermining their own development assistance and diplomatic efforts to end the 12-year conflict by failing to crack down on   rogue companies based within their borders.

In a written statement sent to The-Latest, a British Foreign Office spokesperson said:  "We recognise that illicitly-traded minerals are one of the factors in the instability in eastern DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). We strongly support the sanctions regime, most recently reaffirmed by UNSCR (United Nations Security Council Resolution) 1857. The UK welcomes the new (Dec 22 2008) provision under that Resolution for targeted sanctions to be imposed on individuals and entities supporting illegal armed groups in eastern DRC through the illicit trade of natural resources.   

We are aware of GW's allegations. We take them seriously, and are carrying out a review of the information available to determine whether a breach of the sanctions regime is occurring. We have met GW to discuss the allegations.

We are playing a full role in the DRC national resources international task force, which is looking, among other things, at possible ways of promoting ethical corporate behaviour in this sector. UK development aid work in DRC aims to help DRC achieve full membership of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and ensure revenues from the trade in natural resources flow back into the legitimate economy.''
AMC, in a statement to The-Latest,   said that it was party to an industry-wide scheme called The Tin Supply Chain Initiative (iTSCi), launched last month to trace the source of metals. The scheme has been developed by an ITRI working group, of which Thailand Smelting & Refining Co Ltd (Thaisarco) and Malaysia Smelting Corporation Berhad (MSC) are members.   

It is being implemented by Thaisarco and MSC in stages and is designed to be a constructive approach towards the improved traceability of tin minerals from the region. The scheme is aimed at improving the transparency of the tin supply chain and is anticipated to complement the initiatives of national and international governmental organisations in the DRC.

This first stage is to focus on one aspect of the supply chain which is traceability of minerals between the producer and the exporter. But, according to Global Witness, AMC should do more to exert influence over its suppliers in DRC to ensure that the mineral trade does not fuel conflict and human rights abuses.

According to ITRI's and AMC statements, the concern expressed by Global Witness will be met in the second stage of the scheme. They claim:  "Actions that will extend the level of knowledge by collating upstream supply chain information from mine to exporter/comptoir (producer) are planned in the second phase of the project."

 "At that stage ITRI intends to work with project partners within the DRC from relevant technical organisations and official services; the Division of Mines and SAESSCAM (the mining support and monitoring organisation) are DRC organisations which may be of particular importance in this field work. This phase will be implemented following discussion with relevant partner organisations and when funding has been agreed.   It is hoped this can be achieved in 2010."

As recommended by the UN, the information collated will be used in conjunction with geological maps, which highlight conflict zones and are currently under development by the International Peace Information Service (IPIS) and funded by the UK Department for International Development, with the purpose of ensuring the compliance of the supply chain.

I just hope these worthy measures are not a case of the international community doing too little too late.

* Guy Momat Mulongoy is a Congolese journalism graduate who has experience in broadcasting and has done community and development work.

* See also Forgotten child soldiers who are rejected by their families and BBC report about affects of mining.