Is conflict mineral trade regulation really what the DRC needs?

24 February 2014 | Eric Bell

Eric Bell is a postgraduate student studying International Development: Poverty, Conflict and Reconstruction at the University of Manchester’s Institute for Development Policy and Management. He is currently finishing his thesis which focuses on the links between aid, governance and conflict in thr DRC. Nearly all of his postgraduate research has been focused on central Eastern conflict and reconstruction.

Brigadier-General Harinder Singh, the United Nations brigade commander for North Kivu ,meets with with General Lucien Bahuma, the commander of the FARDC to plan tighter conflict-mineral regulations, July 1st 2012

Brigadier-General Harinder Singh, the United Nations brigade commander for North Kivu ,meets with with General Lucien Bahuma, the commander of the FARDC to plan tighter conflict-mineral regulations, July 1st 2012

President Obama passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act in an effort to strengthen a weakened US financial system.  However, Section 1502 strayed slightly from the rest of the act.  In it, companies listed on the Securities and Exchange Commission were required to disclose if their minerals were extracted from the DRC.  This section of the legislation was introduced in an effort to stop the human rights violations occurring in and around the mines at the hands of armed groups.  It was also thought that by cutting off the market for these minerals, it would also cut off the armed groups’ revenue streams, thus ending the conflict. So, is this a positive step towards ending violence in the DRC? One might think so, but it also has the potential to be harmful.   There is no denying that armed groups benefit greatly from mineral trade.  They accomplish this in two ways: taxation and extortion.  By setting up checkpoints on the many shadow networks established during the war, they can carry out their criminal activities before the miners have a chance to sell the goods to middlemen. Mining is typically done by artisanal miners who depend on the earnings the minerals bring.  Regardless of the threat of armed groups, this is the only means of income for many of them. In addition to this form of commerce, large communities have been established around mining sites.  The capital the mines generate sustain numerous informal economic activities which are crucial to survival.  Some estimate that based on the communities and the economies, the bill could “directly negatively affected up to 5-12 million Congolese civilians”.   Furthermore, there is a risk of perpetuating violence with this bill.  What will happen when armed groups are no longer able to access a revenue stream through mineral trade?  They are not going to pack up their Kalashnikovs and go home.  More than likely they will turn to predation of civilians and their possessions, thereby exacerbating the already existing atrocities. Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act is merely a Band-Aid on a much bigger issue and it simplifies the complex nature of conflict in the DRC.  Minerals alone are not to blame – complex problems deserve complex solutions.   To start, rather than trade regulation, the DRC needs investment in state-building.  Lack of state capacity and legitimacy has allowed the conflict mineral trade to go on unimpeded.  As is apparent, regulations will only hurt the Congolese; thus, what is needed is the decriminalization of mining activities. Once, the criminal element is removed, the mining sector has the potential to strengthen governance and democracy.  This can achieved through legitimate state taxation, as taxation is a public good in that it holds the state accountable to its citizens.  The socio-political contract, something most Congolese have never known, is not the fix-all.  But it is a promising stepping stone.

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