July 01, 2010

Events from Around Town: Ending the Conflict Minerals Trade

Human rights organizations and security wonks don’t often share similar stakes or interests-at least not explicitly.  But as one of those who identifies with both groups, I think it’s incredibly important to recognize that the U.S. foreign policy and defense communities and human rights NGOs very often have common goals and complementary resources that could help achieve them.  That’s why I was particularly excited to attend Ending the Conflict Minerals Trade, an event hosted Monday by the Center for American Progress Action Fund.  The event spotlighted a rare example of this kind of collaboration, with a panel featuring experts on the conflict minerals trade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from  NGOs as well as representatives from the U.S. and Congolese government, including John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Action Fund, Robert D. Hormats, Under Secretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs, Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA), Ambassador Faida Mitifu of the DRC, and David Sullivan, Enough Policy Manager.

The panelists made clear that the illicit trade of mineral ores from the DRC, such as tin, tantalum (or Coltan) and tungsten, essential components of cell phones, laptops and many other electronics and defense applications, is one of the main drivers of a brutal conflict that has cost more than five million lives since 1998, and a level of gender-based violence that is unprecedented in history.  According to Amnesty International, the illicit extraction and trade of these minerals in the eastern part of the country continues to fund militia groups which in turn commit grave human rights atrocities, including “sexual violence, child and slave labor, and mass displacement.”  A first person account in The Guardian also showed the grinding poverty, terrible working conditions, violence and disease that miners and their families are exposed to as a result of this trade.  Nicholas Kristof recently wrote as well that “blood diamonds” funded conflicts in Sierra Leone and other places, these “blood phones” are now supporting a minerals trade that is fueling “mass slaughter and rape in Congo” (see Steve Jobs’ position on the sourcing of iPhone materials).

In order to stem the flow of illegal minerals and improve the lives of the Congolese people, Under Secretary Hormats outlined several steps that the State Department, lead by Secretary Clinton, is taking in order to “promote transparency and accountability” in the supply chain.  It has supported the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and the multilateral and collaborative approach taken by the OECD to create due diligence guidelines to provide practical guidance for mining companies that are doing business in conflict areas like the DRC.  Hormats also highlighted cooperation with industry initiatives to develop new auditing and certification techniques to make sure that mineral supply chains are conflict-free.

Overall, the panel did a great job of explaining how the illicit minerals trade is fueling terrible human rights violations in the DRC and the steps that need to be taken to stop it.  But I couldn’t help but make the connections that conflict minerals have to U.S. national security, and I suspect that this is at least part of the reason that Secretary Clinton and the State Department have taken such a forceful stance on the issue (although I’m certainly not impugning the motives of a fellow Wellesley alum!).  Specifically, the DRC clearly fits the bill of a failed state, featured prominently in Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index every year.  According to Robert Rotberg, a state becomes failed when it is so wracked by internal violence that it can no longer deliver positive political goods to its citizens.  Failed states like the DRC can serve as breeding grounds for drug and human trafficking and terrorism, and conflict spillover can create regional instability.  In fact, Secretary Gates has stated that “dealing with… fractured or failing states is, in many ways, the main security challenge of our times.” In the post-9/11 world, failed states therefore pose a direct threat to U.S. security interests, and bringing these countries back from failure has become a strategic imperative for the United States.

Under Secretary Hormats’ acknowledgement that the ongoing conflict in the DRC is “one of the fundamental moral issues of our time” represented a remarkable step by the State Department in bridging the gap between security policy and human rights issues and acknowledging that both perspectives have a part to play in describing the problem—and the solution—with ending the conflict minerals trade.  In many ways, engaging multiple stakeholders in the security and human rights communities is a positive step in the direction of applying U.S. foreign policy to 21st century challenges.