In defense of ‘Obama’s law’

Philippe is a bricklayer in eastern Congo, with four young children at home. But from 2006-2010, he was forced to work in Congo’s mining trade by an armed group, the CNDP. “As a combatant, you’re a machine,” he said recently. “Your body and strength belong to your commander. I was ordered to transport minerals for my overseer. My only payment was sparing my life by not being sent to the frontlines.” 

Recent critiques by the Cato Institute and in the Washington Post raise concerns about a U.S. law created to address the crimes and atrocities associated with the trade in conflict minerals. These concerns, many of them valid, focus on unemployment linked to the law’s implementation. But demonizing the law itself misses the mark, and risks sabotaging progress underway. 

{mosads}Illegally mined and traded minerals have been and continue to be a significant conflict financer in Congo. They are not the only one, but they are one of the most lucrative. Armed groups siphon millions of dollars by terrorizing mining communities. They rape womenabduct children, and extort taxes on the roads in minerals-rich territories. 

The Congressional drafters of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act, known commonly now in Congo as “Obama’s law,” recognized that companies have power and responsibility in one of the world’s most embattled regions. The law targeted opaque global supply chains that enabled the illicit mining and smuggling of a treasure trove of minerals from Congo. No longer should companies in the US be allowed to profit by using minerals in their products that may have been plundered under threat of an AK-47, without publicly reporting their potential complicity.  

Who profits from stolen minerals in Congo? Indicted war criminals, corrupt officials, army commanders, neighboring countries, and some of the world’s biggest corporations. 

Hard-working civilian miners are also dependent on Congo’s minerals trade – whether legal or not. The transition to conflict-free mining does not come without serious costs, including the potential for mass unemployment. The authors of Dodd-Frank mapped out strategies to prevent this problem. But measures to help miners transition to a formal economy and access alternative employment are coming late, and are underfunded. They need more support, now. Realistically, it will take years to build a regulated mining sector and ensure millions of people in Congo who depend on mining for their livelihoods have a safety net. 

But meanwhile, there’s a war going on. 

The world should not turn away from the mass atrocities ongoing in Congo, including civilian death at scales not seen since World War II. Dodd-Frank is one tool to accomplish a critical goal in support of peace: to bankrupt brutal militias and create accountability in global minerals supply chains. Follow-on regional reforms like a new minerals certification system also need to be accelerated, because they’re showing signs of success. 

In 2010, the UN Group of Experts found almost every mining deposit in the Kivu provinces of eastern Congo under the control of an armed group. In contrast, a recent study found that nearly three-quarters of miners at tin, tantalum, and tungsten mines surveyed in eastern Congo no longer work under threat of armed groups. 

“War doesn’t come for one person. It touched all of us,” said Jean Marie, a Congolese miner in a recent interview. “Now we’re selling for five or even seven dollars. We are very happy with this new tagging system.” 

Before 2010, the world lacked any system to cut off a major source of the revenue underwriting violence against Congo’s people. Ending atrocities requires diverse efforts in close coordination. Advocates identified a gap in those efforts and committed to dealing with conflict minerals because the violent pillage was continuing unabated. For those based in the US, we saw one source of the problem in our backyard, our unchecked western markets and companies. Minerals are not the only factor in Congo’s war. Nor will the end of the conflict minerals trade mean an end to all of Congo’s problems. 

Democratic reformdemobilization of militiasending and preventing violence against women, and sustainable development are all crucial goals that are part of a broad local and global effort to support peace and security in Congo. 

Conflict free means more than the absence of war. Historically, private sector actors have perpetrated crimes against Congo’s land and people. Companies that invest in Congo’s minerals trade must prevent human rights abuses at their mines, protect biodiversity, and make their activities transparent. And if they violate domestic or international law, they must face consequences. 

And shopping will not solve wars, as the Post’s Karen Attiah has rightly pointed out. But in our global interdependence, individual purchases in the US or Europe do impact the lives and wellbeing of people under daily threat of violence. Armed with the truth, consumers can be part of a larger strategy in which demand for products sourced legally creates economic incentives toward peace. 

Companies have influence over the fate of Congo’s war and an obligation to reverse their complicity in its protraction. Congo-based watchdog organizations along with tools such as the Enough Project’s consumer electronics rankings and jewelry leaders review help citizens take part in a public, democratic process of holding companies accountable. 

Archbishop Rusengo of Bukavu, a staunch Congolese advocate of minerals regulation, has said, “In the 21st century one can’t continue to exercise the right of the strongest rather than law itself.” Without curbing the financing of war, we cannot hope to see an end to violent oppression of mining communities in Congo. And without illuminating supply chains whose origins are battle zones, we cannot break the links between our own consumer behavior and Congo’s prolonged war.

Dranginis is a policy analyst for the Enough Project.


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