Trump order on conflict minerals would send warlords carte blanche signal, say critics

A battle involving some of America’s most powerful men and some of Africa’s most powerful warlords is being waged in Donald Trump’s White House. At stake are billions of dollars, child labour, sexual violence and the precious minerals that make our tech gadgets work.

Others say regulation poses financial burden and some easily circumvent rule in Democratic Republic of Congo

Men carry bags of cassiterite (tin), as well as coltan, from which tantalum is extracted, from the Mudere mine near Goma in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The metals are used in cellphones and computers. (Junior D. Kannah/AFP/Getty)

A battle involving some of America's most powerful men and some of Africa's most powerful warlords is being waged in Donald Trump's White House.

At stake are billions of dollars, child labour, sexual violence, and the precious minerals that make our tech gadgets work.

Soon after Trump took office, his plan to suspend the law on what are known as conflict minerals was leaked to the media.

The law was part of former president Barack Obama's 2010 financial reform package known as the Dodd-Frank Act. Section 1502 of the act requires U.S. companies to avoid using conflict minerals from Congo and surrounding countries that are used to fund war, perpetuating human rights atrocities.

It also asked companies to track their global supply chains and provide independently audited reports to the Securities Exchange Commission.

U.S. President Donald Trump has drafted an executive order targeting a rule requiring U.S. companies to disclose whether their products contain 'conflict minerals' from a war-torn part of Africa and to report on their supply chains. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Rights groups called the transparency law groundbreaking.

"The conflict minerals law is a vital way of breaking the chain between horrific human rights abuses in Central Africa and consumer products like smartphones," said Audrey Gaughran, Amnesty International's director of global issues.

Tantalum, tin, tungsten (the 3Ts) and gold — heavily mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — are referred to as conflict minerals because of the immense profits they bring in helping warlords finance their wars with rival armies and the Congolese military.

The Enough Project, a Washington-based NGO, refers to what is happening in the DRC as the deadliest conflict since the Second World War, with more than 5.4 million people killed since the late 1990s and millions more displaced.

"The whole point of [Section 1502] was to remove the warlords," adds Joanne Lebert, executive director of Ottawa's non-profit Partnership Africa Canada. "So this is going to send a signal that it's carte blanche. They can do whatever they want."

Industry fights back, wins partial victory

Big business and some U.S. Republicans have spent years trying to get Section 1502 repealed or radically revised.

From the very beginning, then-chair of the SEC, Mary Jo White, said that while she personally would like to see an end to the human rights atrocities in the DRC, the new law seemed "more directed at exerting societal pressure on companies to change behaviour, rather than to disclose financial information that primarily informs investment decisions."

In May 2012, Franklin Vargo, vice-president of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the largest industrial trade group in the U.S., testified at a House subcommittee that while NAM also abhorred what was going on in the DRC, the new rules would pose a potentially huge financial burden on his membership.

A gold miner works in an open pit at the Chudja mine in eastern Congo, where the Congolese army and multiple armed groups have been waging war. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

Later that year, three of America's largest industry associations — NAM, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable (a group of top CEOs) — filed suit against the SEC, hoping to repeal the conflict minerals law.

They won a partial victory when the court ruled that the requirement to describe products as having "not been found to be DRC conflict-free" violates the First Amendment.

The rest of the law, involving documenting product supply chain and reporting to the SEC, was upheld in 2014 and then again in 2015.

As the legal battles were playing out, rights and development groups were working to let the public know what mining conditions are like in the DRC. Their highest profile campaigner was House of Cards actress Robin Wright.

Wright stars in a documentary called When Elephants Fight, the name taken from the African proverb, "when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers." It means that in conflicts between the powerful, it is the weak who are hurt.

The film documents warlords using slave labour in the mines and children forced at gunpoint to dig with their hands for the minerals that fire up our smartphones and laptops.

"We are using these devices all day, every day, for our convenience and it's basically perpetuating a war," Wright said. "I find it unacceptable that as consumers we allow this to go on."

DRC 'most dangerous' for women

Sexual violence is also often fuelled by the militias and armies warring over conflict minerals, says The Enough Project's co-founder John Prendergast.

"The Congo war has the highest rate of violence against women and girls in the world," he said. "And reports indicate that hundreds of thousands have been raped, making it the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman or girl."

Human rights abuses, specifically sexual violence, have been widely reported by NGOs at small-scale artisanal mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Evelyn Mayanja)

Softening the profits-over-people optics, tech giants Apple, Blackberry, Motorola and Intel have decided to move away from allowing conflict minerals into their products and toward using ethically mined 3Ts.

Intel made it clear the company wanted to be seen as a socially conscious industry leader. In early 2014, CEO Brian Krzanich announced that all of the company's microprocessors released that year would be free of conflict minerals.

"As a shareholder, you should care about this, you should want us to address it," Krzanich said in a keynote speech to the SEC. "It did cost us a lot to set up this program, but now it's running, the cost of the actual materials is no more."

Tech companies supporting due diligence

After Trump's plan to suspend the conflict mineral law was leaked, Intel, Apple and a few other companies let it be known that regardless of whether the law was scrapped, they would continue sourcing only ethically mined minerals.

Jewelry giant Tiffany & Co. also weighed in with a written statement urging U.S. Congress "to support legislation that effectively promotes due diligence and transparency for the source of all conflict metals and gemstones."

Six years later, inspectors determine which mines are ethically run or "green" and the specially tagged 3Ts are shipped to smelters that are part of the Conflict-Free Sourcing Initiative (CFSI).

Companies are then expected to buy their supplies from only CFSI smelters.

The Enough Project's Sasha Lezhnev believes the system is working.

"In 2010, the UN said nearly every mine was controlled by a military actor," Lezhev says. "Now 79 per cent of miners are working in mines that are conflict free."

Getting around the rules

Evelyn Mayange, who is writing her PhD thesis on conflict minerals at the University of Manitoba, doesn't share that assessment. She says there is a desperate lack of independent monitors in the DRC, and that conflict minerals are smuggled into neighbouring countries and green-washed as they go.

There is corruption, she says, at every level.

"I interviewed custom officials, and two told me that when the minerals are brought from the mines, they're paid money and they just put a tag on the bags," said Mayange. "Then they go as if they're conflict free."

Having recently returned from a research trip to the DRC, Mayange argues that Section 1502 of Dodd-Frank needs to be strengthened, not struck down.

She says the mines need closer scrutiny on the use of child labour and sexual violence.

"Of the mines I visited, 50 to 70 per cent were children. Some are working as miners, some as porters, some in prostitution, and others are just there as beggars, looking for ways to survive," she said.

Mining sites in the eastern regions of the DRC employ children who work alongside adults. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states that governments should protect children from work that is dangerous or might harm their health or education. (Evelyn Mayanja)

Still, many believe the U.S. conflict mineral law is a critical start. Dozens of human rights, social and religious groups in the DRC and neighbouring countries are pleading with the Trump administration to keep the regulation in place.

An open letter by Congolese civil rights leader Jamal Usseni Jamael read, in part, that suspending the Dodd-Frank rule "will have negative consequences for millions" in eastern DRC.

He said rebel groups will "find the means" to finance the war.

"They will kill the children, they will rape the women. They will destroy all hope for the Congolese people to live in peace in their own territory."


Joan Leishman is a veteran CBC journalist specializing in international affairs. For more than a decade Joan worked as a documentary reporter for The National. She was also posted to Mexico City as CBC TV's Latin American bureau chief and opened CBC Radio's first bureau in Africa, covering the Rwandan genocide and South Africa's violent transition from apartheid to the democratic election of Nelson Mandela