A Solution to Congolese Violence — or Empty Gesture?

As part of the sweeping financial reform bill signed into law this past week by President Barack Obama, a surprising legislative rider took effect seeking an end to the internal conflict plaguing Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The provision, which resulted largely from intensive lobbying efforts by the Enough Project to stop genocide, is designed to prevent destabilizing elements within the DRC from feeding off the country’s lucrative trade in precious metals. The DRC boasts rich deposits of tungsten, tantalum, and tin—metals commonly found in cell phones, laptops, video game consoles and other electronic devices—profits from which have long been seen to fuel the activities of non-state combatants there.

Supporters of the provision applaud its potential to help curb the hideous violence that has ravaged DRC for better part of the last fifteen years. Writing in the Huffington Post on Friday, Representative Howard Berman (D-CA)—Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs—championed the law’s commitment to limiting the profit opportunities that conflict minerals offer to armed groups within the country. The new law requires “that companies doing business in the Congo and adjoining countries disclose both the provenance of the minerals they use and the efforts they have taken to ensure that their dollars do not directly or indirectly support armed groups that employ rape as a tool of war and otherwise perpetuate the conflict…An important step,” Berman argues, “in changing the situation in that beleaguered country.”

But the unfortunate reality is that no matter how well-intentioned, the law will have little positive impact on the ground in Congo.

For starters, it presupposes a Congolese state capable of enforcing the law’s provisions. Under the regulations imposed by the legislation, electronics manufacturers must certify the origin of all minerals used in their products with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and comply with an order to produce yearly reports detailing their efforts to avoid purchase of so-called “conflict minerals.” Yet it is precisely an absence of the state in mineral-rich regions that allows the illegal trade in precious metals to flourish.

The vast majority of mineral wealth in DRC falls under the control of regional militias, directly and indirectly, rendering the state’s ability to regulate the flow of minerals into and out of the country practically nonexistent. According to reports detailing the mineral trade in DRC, rebels mine the metals and sell them to traders who then smuggle them across the border into neighboring countries. From there, the goods make their way along a complex string of exchange largely outside state purview culminating in their sale to transnational corporations. By the time the minerals have been converted into electronic gadgets, any attempts to trace their origin become Sisyphean.

Even if DRC possessed the state capacity to properly monitor the minerals and prevent warring factions from profiting off them, however, it’s far from clear that this would significantly reduce violence throughout the affected provinces. Mineral exploitation is a means of fueling conflict, not an end in itself. Until the broader issues wracking DRC—the continued presence of Hutu interahawame in Kivu, the incessant meddling of Rwanda in Congolese affairs, and land rights disputes, to name but three—are resolved, unabated violence in affected areas should be expected. Unfortunately, the United States has thus far demonstrated little interest in directly addressing these underlying causes of conflict in DRC.

And then there’s the larger problem of unintended consequences. Opponents of the measure argue that the hassles and uncertainty of verification will scare off potential investors, effectively saddling the country with a de facto trade embargo. If businesses do pull out of DRC, warns John Kanyoni—the head of the Association of Mineral Exporters in Congo—“thousands of Congolese will be jobless and might most probably (be) joining the armed groups.” Thus, the law could have the perverse effect of generating the very problems it seeks prevent.

These considerations aside, the new law constitutes a good faith effort to bring violence in the DRC to an end and force transnational corporations to reorient business practices that privilege the bottom line over human rights. It could be that, in the best case scenario, the law economically cripples warring militias in DRC, allowing local Congolese to enjoy a measure of safety that they currently are without.

But DRC needs much more than good intentions if it’s to emerge successfully from the ruins of state collapse. Above all, the country demands security. As we have discovered, unfortunately, assisting countries in this regard proves exceedingly difficult and politically fraught. Yet it’s of the essence. Until DRC is capable of performing the basic function of the Weberian state—monopolization of the use of force for the protection of civilians—the country will continue suffering under the heavy weight of social disorder. And any attempts by Washington in the meantime to bring the conflict in DRC to a close will do more to alleviate troubled consciences on Capitol Hill than actually bring about the meaningful change they purportedly affect.