Democratic Republic of Congo: The Importance of Realistic Legislation on 'Conflict-Free Gadgets'

11/09/2012 16:46 BST | Updated 11/11/2012 10:12 GMT

With the notorious M23 rebel group displacing thousands in eastern DRC, escalating levels of violence in the resource-rich Kivu region is once again making headlines around the world. Sky-rocketing demand for consumer gadgets, many of which contain precious minerals sourced from the DRC, the dilemma is how to regulate their extraction while ensuring some the world's poorest people don't bear the brunt of 'Obama's Law'

Accountability and responsibility; where does it start and where does it end? Growing up always comes with taking on greater responsibilities, and we soon learn that our decisions not only affect our own lives, but also those of others, either close or unknown to us. The same counts for our actions, and the direct and indirect consequences they may trigger.

We all know that stealing something from a shop, downloading pirate music and movies, or buying a stolen car is illegal, and has serious consequences for you, and many others involved. So why, when multi-national companies buy cheap raw materials for use in mobile phones, laptops and other 'must-have' consumer products via traders in eastern DRC, are they not required to even consider the consequences for local people in the countries these valuable minerals originate?

Knowing that these raw materials are often a vital financial source for armed militia to buy weapons in order to keep the conflict in eastern DRC going, are illegally exploited, and are fuelling human rights violations, why would private companies not be held accountable and responsible for what they buy, use, and contribute to? Why would they not be held responsible for the bloody consequences in the fragile countries where these materials come from?

In July 2010, the US Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which calls for multi-nationals to take accept such accountability and responsibility. Section 1502 of this so-called 'Obama's Law', requires companies extracting cassiterite, coltan, gold, and wolframite to carry out stringent checks on their supply chains and determine whether the materials they purchased have contributed to armed groups and prolonged conflict in the DRC.

This August the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) voted on the rules in Section 1502, agreeing upon a clause that temporarily allows companies to describe the minerals they use as 'undeterminable' for a period of two to four years , depending on the size of the company. This decision has been a huge disappointment for many except, of course, for the private companies profiting from it.

But in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king and, although the UK Government pays lip service to international voluntary guidelines, any concrete actions by British companies are largely limited. "British companies trading in natural resources from the DRC to do so in a way which is socially, economically and environmentally responsible, including adhering to the voluntary guidelines set out by the OECD". EU legislation is also non-existent.

At this moment in particular, with the notorious M23 rebel group displacing hundreds of thousands in eastern DRC, security vacuums provide the perfect environment for other armed rebel groups to expand their area of activity, and incidents of violence, sexual and otherwise, in the beautiful Kivu region of DRC are increasing week on week, day by day. Indeed, for many of the militia groups, the illegal exploitation and smuggling of minerals is their only source of income and provides them with a powerful motive to continue fighting.

So are minerals the only reason for conflict in the DRC? Absolutely not, but they are fuelling a myriad of the conflicts in the DRC. Is the implementation and monitoring of laws or regulations on raw materials used by private companies going to solve such conflicts? No, but it is a vital component of conflict that we can address to help tackle at least some of the DRC's ongoing tensions.

And is it going to lift the world's poorest people out of poverty? It will not, but it will certainly highlight one of the keys causes of poverty and can be implemented alongside, for instance, humanitarian aid, promoting regional negotiations to tackle both current and long- standing root causes of conflict, structural state reforms, and the regulation of artisanal mining.

Finally, we need to stop simplifying the message that minerals + armed groups = the only cause of conflict in the DRC. We need to see regulations such as the Dodd-Frank Act as a crucial element in a more comprehensive and realistic approach to address the violence, to allow durable development and, crucially, to help Congo's poor out of poverty.