Mixed-reactions to proposed repeal of controversial mining transparency rule

One of the few remaining miners digs out soil which will later be filtered for traces of cassiterite, the major ore of tin, at Nyabibwe mine, in eastern Congo. Aug 2012 (AP Photo/Marc Hofer)

The Trump administration is expected to repeal a hotly debated rule forcing U.S. companies to ensure that they do not source minerals from conflict regions. A leaked draft of an executive order suspends Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act citing the financial burden of sourcing minerals on U.S. companies.

The International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, a group made up of central African countries say the repeal will harm their work to certify the source of minerals produced in the region. A statement signed by more than 40 Congolese civil society organizations shares similar concerns. Advocates who helped create the rule say it is a major blow to efforts to limit rebel groups in Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“Any executive action suspending the U.S. conflict minerals rule would be a gift to predatory armed groups seeking to profit from Congo’s minerals as well as a gift to companies wanting to do business with the criminal and the corrupt,” Carly Oboth, policy adviser at Global Witness, said in a statement. “It is an abuse of power that the Trump administration is claiming that the law should be suspended through a national security exemption intended for emergency purposes. Suspending this provision could actually undermine U.S. national security.”

Opponents to the rule say proponents overstate their case. They argue that the rule does not address the root causes of conflict in the Congo and hurts miners. As evidence, they point to the de facto mining ban that followed after the adoption of the rule in 2010. Miners working across the country were temporarily cut off from doing the work that supported their families.

The loss of jobs were recognized by activists supporting the rule, but they said that it was a small negative effect relative to the more important impact on rebel groups. Tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold mined in Congo are used by major electronics companies around the world. Activists say that rebel groups control some mines or extract payment from them to fund their attacks on Congolese civilians.

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Those minerals are used in electronic devices, such as cell phones and laptops. The “conflict minerals” campaign supported by Global Witness, the Enough Project and other groups sought to draw the connection between the fighting in the Congo and U.S. consumers. Actress Robin Wright banged the drum that cell phones were fueling conflict in the Congo, through OpEds and public appearances.

The solution was sold in simple terms. If companies are forced to look closely at their supply chain, they can stop buying minerals sourced from mines connected to Congolese rebels. Advocates said that cutting off those mines would hurt the rebel groups and potentially decrease violence in the region.

An open letter signed by 70 academics in 2014 argued that the rule misunderstood the relationship between minerals and conflict. They said that minerals do perpetuate the conflict in eastern Congo, but are not the cause. Further, armed groups do not solely depend on minerals to pay for their activities. Some groups are not involved in the mining sector at all.

Civil society groups did take part in the formation of the rule, but many were not included in the discussions – especially those in opposition. Finally, the letter said that the quick implementation of the rule led companies to stop buying minerals from the region altogether because they could not know for sure whether or not the source mine was connected to rebels.

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“As a result, the conflict minerals movement has yet to lead to meaningful improvement on the ground, and has had a number of unintended and damaging consequences,” says the letter. “Nearly four years after the passing of the Dodd-Frank Act, only a small fraction of the hundreds of mining sites in the eastern DRC have been reached by traceability or certification efforts. The rest remain beyond the pale, forced into either illegality or collapse as certain international buyers have responded to the legislation by going ‘Congo-free.’”

On the other hand, the rule is nearly seven years old. Extractive industry transparency rules implemented by Europe and Canada are similar to 1502. And there are some positive outcomes. Fewer armed groups control mines and there is evidence of improved health and safety standards for miners.

The narrow language about the rule that shaped advocacy campaigns is expanding. The Enough project says 1502 is “an important part of a much broader peacebuilding and good governance effort.” They say that the de facto embargo that harmed Congolese miners is over and mineral exports hit record highs.

Yet, the debate continues. Academic Sara Greenen of the University of Antwerp agrees with the Trump administration’s decision to repeal 1502. She cites the open letter and other evidence showing the unintended negative consequences of the rule as reasons for opposing it. But she also says that both sides are ignoring an important group, the Congolese miners.

“[W]hen it comes to addressing the problems of the Congo the more effective way is complex and politically messy,” she writes in The Conversation. “It involves more than just mining sector reform, but also political negotiations and peacebuilding efforts.”

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.