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Fight Against Conflict Minerals Uncertain in Congo

With violence and human-rights abuses on the rise in the Congo, the international community is stepping up efforts to prevent "conflict minerals" from fueling further bloodshed.

For more than 10 years the Democratic Republic of the Congo has played host to one of the deadliest and most disturbing conflicts on the planet. According to the New York-based International Rescue Committee, more than 5.4 million people have been killed in DRC fighting since 1998, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II.

Recently, it has been revealed that the war, raging primarily along the country's eastern borders has been aggravated by worldwide demand for the region's abundant resources, often referred to as "conflict minerals."

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has vast resources of precious metals such as gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten. All four are critical to the manufacture of many electronics devices, including mobile phones and computers. According to the Washington-based Enough Project, the control of these materials has become the primary cause of violence in the region, with rebel groups now vying for control of the mines that produce the precious metals.

According to the group, rape is the preferred method of intimidation, used by armed groups to subdue civilian populations and control smuggling routes to the outside world. The U.N. peacekeeping mission in the eastern Congo, MONUSCO, has been largely unable to stem the violence. It was recently revealed that more than 240 women and children were raped by rebel forces as they took control of Luvungi in the North Kivu province.

The United Nations estimates 500 people were raped in the North and South Kivu provinces during the months of July and August, with both rebels and government forces implicated in the violence. The organization has called the Democratic Republic of the Congo the "rape capital of the world" and the international community is beginning to take notice.

In July, the United States Senate included a provision in the Financial Reform Act that mandates U.S. companies who purchase tin ore, gold and other precious metals to prove their products are conflict-free. Companies who fail to meet this standard are subject to independent audit and heavy penalties. The move was praised by groups such as London-based watchdog Global Witness, which said the bill puts the responsibility on companies to avoid inadvertently financing the violence.

Global Witness also welcomed the recent ban, imposed by President Joseph Kabila, on mining activities in eastern Congo. Speaking Saturday, Mr. Kabila indefinitely suspended mining in the Maniema and North and South Kivu provinces, in order to eliminate what he called "mafia" control of the industry.

The head of Global Witness' Congo campaign, Daniel Balint-Kurti, expressed measured hope the move would prove successful.

"The mining sector is ridden with control by rebel groups and other armed groups," said Daniel Balint-Kurti. "We think that if this ban is taken in order to clean up the sector, get things in order, and then restart mines production under a working system in which miners are not prey to armed men, then that could be a good thing. We do have to see how this happens in practice."

But not everybody is happy with the president's ban. Global tin industry group ITRI said the ban on mining in both Kivu provinces would essentially freeze their efforts to bring transparency to tin mining in the region.

Last July, the group launched the ITRI Tin Supply Chain Initiative to begin tracking and certifying tin exports at select mines in the provinces.

The process is funded almost exclusively by tin exporters and smelters who look to the group for certification of their minerals. Without tin exports, the group says it will be unable to ensure legitimate materials are being exported in the region.

There are also fears the ban could negatively impact civilian miners. ITRI spokesperson Kay Nimmo says that measures such as the ban and the U.S. restrictions promoted disengagement, rather than proactive solutions to mineral smuggling. Nimmo warned that such strict measures would hurt the market rather than promote reform.

"It is important for people to realize that staying in and trying to make improvement is perhaps the better way of doing it," said Kay Nimmo. "Because the proportion of Congolese tin is very low, only three percent of world production, it is very easy to get alternative supplies from other areas. So it is a very easy choice for people to say 'We will not follow the procedures required in the conflict minerals bill we will just buy from somewhere else.'"

Global Witness spokesman Balint-Kurti dismissed those arguments, saying the level of risk taken by tin producers to obtain Congolese minerals demonstrates the market's ability to withstand the ban.

Many analysts believe the government will have trouble enforcing the ban, and some even predict an increase in smuggling as a result. It remains to be seen what, if any, steps the Congolese authorities will take to separate government and rebel forces from the illicit trade. If international and local efforts prove unsuccessful, the Congolese people will likely continue to suffer.