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Men work in a gold mine on February 23, 2009 in Chudja, near Bunia, north eastern Congo. (LIONEL HEALING/LIONEL HEALING/AFP/Getty Images)
Men work in a gold mine on February 23, 2009 in Chudja, near Bunia, north eastern Congo. (LIONEL HEALING/LIONEL HEALING/AFP/Getty Images)

Plan to stanch flow of 'conflict minerals' from Congo causes turmoil Add to ...

The campaign began as an idealistic effort to halt a horrific epidemic of rape and murder in the heart of Africa. It burgeoned into a powerful consumer movement, culminating in a planned U.S. regulation that is terrifying some of the world’s biggest corporations.

And now, with companies such as Apple Inc. and Motorola desperately seeking an ethical stamp of approval for their latest tablets and smart phones, activists like Joanne Lebert of Ottawa are finding themselves in an unexpected position of influence. Their new certification scheme could help solve a political dilemma that is inflicting turmoil on thousands of African miners and Western corporations.

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At the centre of this global battle are the “conflict minerals” – tin, gold, tantalum and tungsten – that have fuelled vicious wars and ruthless militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of Africa’s biggest and poorest countries. Their proceeds are financing the warlords and armies that are responsible for millions of deaths and sexual assaults over the past decade in one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts.

But the attempt to stanch this flow of illicit money is inadvertently triggering an economic nightmare in Africa and North America. Even before the U.S. regulation is formally introduced, the export of conflict minerals is rapidly drying up as the multinationals scramble to avoid any bad publicity. And the human-rights activists who spearheaded the campaign are being accused of destroying one of Congo’s few profitable industries, killing thousands of mining jobs.

In the United States, meanwhile, the proposed new regulation is provoking loud protests from multinational corporations in dozens of industries, from automobiles and electronics to processed food and fighter jets. At a hearing in Washington this week, their executives argued that it’s impossible for them to certify the ethical origin of thousands of supplies from around the world.

If the U.S. regulation goes ahead, it would create a huge business incentive by allowing compliant companies to label their products as “conflict-free” – a potentially lucrative market advantage. Without this label, many products could suffer a damaging consumer boycott. The labelling system would be modelled on a Canadian-initiated scheme, the Kimberley Process, which certifies that gems are not “blood diamonds” from war zones.

The campaign against conflict minerals has gained a huge following in recent years, supported by Hollywood celebrities, human-rights groups, campus organizations and feminist leaders. Headlines such as “rape and murder funded by cell phones” have put enormous pressure on U.S. companies to stop using Congo minerals. And it created a unique opportunity that the activists are determined to exploit.

Some businesses are pushing for a delay or a legal challenge to the new U.S. regulation, which was first proposed last December as part of the Dodd-Frank financial oversight law. But the human-rights activists are worried that any delay would weaken their main source of political leverage at a crucial point in their campaign to cut off the illicit money that fuels murder and rape in Congo.

“If the United States backs down now, everything could be lost,” says Ms. Lebert, who works for Partnership Africa Canada, an Ottawa-based group that won a $1.6-million grant from the Department of Foreign Affairs to help create a system of mineral tracking and certification in Congo and neighbouring states.

“It makes us very nervous, for sure, because we want to keep the pressure on,” she said in an interview this week from the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, where she has been introducing the new system to Congo’s government officials.

Ms. Lebert admits that the looming U.S. regulation – and the panicked reaction of many Western corporations – is causing havoc in Congo’s mining sector. “People’s livelihoods are being seriously affected,” she said. “It has created suffering. It has generated a crisis on the ground.”

She argues that it’s an “unnecessary crisis” because of an overreaction from industry. “It has generated a great deal of fear and misperception.”

Ms. Lebert is working with the governments in the region, primarily Congo and Rwanda, to set up a database and a data-collection system for conflict minerals, overseen by governments and independent auditors. The system could include “bagging and tagging” of minerals, as is already done with tin exports from some regions of Congo. There would be audits of mining sites to ensure that no soldiers or militia fighters are controlling the mines. An inspector-general would be empowered to investigate any suspected violations.

She is convinced that the system can work, despite the skepticism from some critics. But there’s one problem: The new scheme cannot be tested until the exports resume. With the multinationals still frightened of a consumer boycott, and with the Dodd-Frank regulation still clouded by uncertainty and possible lawsuits, nobody knows when the mineral flow will resume.

The economic impact has already been massive. The mining regions of eastern Congo have been devastated by what they call “the Obama law.” Multinational companies have stopped buying Congo minerals because they fear a boycott if they are accused of selling “blood cellphones.” Only the Chinese companies are still buying. Most mineral exporters in Congo have shut down their operations, most mines are nearly empty and thousands of small-scale mine workers have lost their jobs. By one estimate, more than a million workers have been affected.

“The eastern Congo's economy is completely dependent on mining, so the shocks are reverberating through every sector,” says Laura Seay, a Congo expert at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

“Teachers aren't getting paid because miners and traders can't afford to pay tuition and their kids aren't in school. Market sellers are losing profits because no one can buy anything and they can't get goods flown in. It's a disaster.”

She argues that the halt in the minerals trade has done nothing to reduce violence in the region. “No one has stopped fighting because of the ban and no one is likely to do so in the future. It's a mess.”

Claude Kabemba, a Congolese activist who is director of Southern Africa Resource Watch, says the U.S. regulation is unlikely to stop the illegal export of conflict minerals, since Congo’s borders are porous and corruption is widespread. The new regulation is a distraction from the bigger task of bringing stability to the war-torn country, he says.

The activists, however, are persevering with their campaign. “There are always unintended consequences to such sweeping but necessary changes,” Ms. Lebert says. “Most of us, if not all, could foresee that this would be both challenging and bumpy. We are too far down the road to go back.”

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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