Kinshasa moves to curb trade in ‘blood minerals’

Saturday May 04 2024

Labourers work at an open shaft of the SMB coltan mine near the town of Rubaya in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo on August 13, 2019. PHOTO | REUTERS


The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has protested alleged fuelling of conflict on its territory by multinationals buying “blood minerals” to fuel the energy and digital transformations.

Kinshasa has accused United States smartphone giant- Apple of paying for minerals without critically looking at the suppliers.

The accusation is not the first by Kinshasa levelled against outsiders for fuelling the war in eastern DRC, but this time round, the Central African nation has issued a formal warning to Apple for “using minerals from national mines that are illegally exploited and fuelling the war.”

Kinshasa was banking on details contained in a new report by the expert members of the strategic coordination of the International Justice Taskforce. Their report, Blood Minerals-Le blanchiment des 3T de la RDC par le Rwanda et des entités privies, highlights the serious human rights violations suffered by people living in the mining regions of the east of the country.

Read: M23 rebels claim control of Congo mining town

On the basis of the report, DRC's lawyers, Amsterdam & Partners, issued a formal notice to Apple and, at the same time, addressed a series of questions to its Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook.


They charged that “it has become clear to us that, year after year, Apple has sold technology made with minerals sourced from a region whose population is being devastated by grave violations of human rights.”

They accused Apple of relying on minerals “tainted by blood of the Congolese people.” The firm has three weeks from April 22 to respond, the legal team argued.

Apple’s situation seems familiar: Numerous companies have been accused of taking products from tainted suppliers, who include smelters that have direct contact with rebel groups in the DRC.

And, because they pay for minerals supplied by the rebel groups, it is believed they indirectly empower the groups to continue fighting for control of those mines.

“Numerous international observers and Non-Governmental Organisations have demonstrated that the illicit trade in these blood minerals substantially sustains a widespread money laundering enterprise,” said Congolese Government Spokesman Patrick Muyaya.

Apple rejected the accusations, saying that it routinely conducts independent audits of its suppliers. Apple had earlier indicated in an annual report that all suppliers as at December last year, had no background in direct or indirect benefit from ongoing war in the eastern DRC.

“Although Apple does not directly purchase, procure or source primary minerals, we are committed to meeting and exceeding internationally accepted due diligence standards for primary minerals and recycled materials in our supply chain,” it said.

Read: DRC mine deploys technology to curb illicit mineral trade

Apple said its code and responsible sourcing requires suppliers… “in our supply chain to identify and assess a broad range of risks beyond conflict, including social, environmental and human rights risks.”

The Congolese government demanded "clear answers from Apple and its subsidiaries in France" within the next three weeks.

The press release issued on April 25 states that if the answers expected from Apple and its subsidiaries are not satisfactory, the lawyers appointed by the Congo "may take appropriate action.”

Persistent worries

According to the DRC government, Apple uses the 3T minerals, “mainly purchased in Rwanda, in its products, even though Kigali has almost zero production of these minerals.”

The DRC was amplifying another report by the Global Witness, a watchdog that often studies corruption in supply chains. Its recent report said natural resources of the DRC's provinces "attract all sorts of predators, from armed groups to cowboy companies.”

The backdrop is the exploitation of 3T ores -- tin (cassiterite), tungsten (wolframite) and tantalum (coltan). The metals produced by smelting 3T ores are widely used in electronic equipment such as mobile phones, computers and other smart-tech gadgets as well as automotive and aerospace systems. The illegal mining of these minerals is fuelling the war in the DRC, Global Witness concluded.

According to Global Witness' 2022 report, "a key player in the launch ITSCI (International Tin Supply Chain Initiative) programme in Rwanda estimates that for years, only 10 percent of minerals exported by the country had been mined in its territory.”

But the Global Witness also accused some Congolese army officers of taking part in the illegal mining activities in the troubled provinces of eastern Congo.

"Members of the national army have long coveted positions that allow them to control areas with lucrative mining reserves. Although they are prohibited from taking part in the mineral trade, there is ample evidence that officers of all ranks have been illegally involved for decades," Global Witness wrote in the 2022 report.

Read: DRC returns Chinese firm's mineral shipments with high radiation levels

For nearly 30 years, eastern DRC has been undermined by local and foreign-armed groups fighting the DRC army. In February this year, Rwandan President Paul Kagame did admit that natural resources were being plundered in the Congo, but denied smugglers were staying in Rwanda. He acknowledged that Rwanda is just a transit zone.

The final destinations of these illegally exploited minerals is Dubai, Russia and others. He said that if Rwanda tried to stop these people, the accusations against his country would multiply.

The DRC is not the only country troubled by conflict mineral merchants. Last month, the US and the European Union launched the Mineral Security Partnership (MSP) Forum, which seeks to include more countries in the assessment of what they call Critical Raw Materials package (CRM) to help ensure supply chains are free of “bad” suppliers.

The Forum defined CRMs as indispensable material for a wide set of technologies needed for strategic sectors such as the net-zero industry, digital, space and defence.

But the Forum itself is lean. The MSP was launched in 2022, and included Australia, Canada, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Norway, South Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the US and the EU.

Last month, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Namibia and Uzbekistan joined. Although both the US and the EU say it will serve as a new platform for cooperation in the area of critical raw materials vital for the global green and digital transitions, it excludes major sources of minerals such as the DRC.

Officially, however, the Forum is listed as bringing “together resource-rich countries and countries with high demand for these resources.”
Some experts say the Forum may be a good move, but it won’t solve the problems such as those in the DRC alone, especially since the supply chain is full of informal dealers.

“The Minerals Security Partnership is a decent voluntary step, but the US and EU need to follow it up with concrete actions to sanction conflict gold and minerals trading networks who continue to smuggle from Sudan, DR Congo, and elsewhere, as well as much more robust investments in a responsible minerals trade,” Sasha Lezhnev, a Policy Consultant at the anti-graft watchdog, Sentry, told The EastAfrican.

Read: DRC plans overhaul of copper, cobalt joint ventures

“These include high-level diplomacy to formalise and legalise artisanal and small-scale mining and help artisanal miners get access to credit.”

Jose W. Fernandez, US Undersecretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and Environment, did admit that the MSP Forum will work only through collaboration.

“An effort like this will only succeed if we collaborate, and if we collaborate as equals,” he said in a video statement last month.

It doesn’t list conflict minerals specifically but principles it thinks will help address the gas fuelling war. These include environmental conservation, engaging local communities and authorities, ethical business practices, safe working conditions and transparent operations.