Conflict minerals in the Congo: What can UCL do? Support the Conflict-Free Minerals Initiative

Last week UCLU Amnesty International Society held an awareness evening about conflict minerals in the Congo and Great Lakes region. The society was privileged to have Tom Gibson give a talk, as Amnesty International’s campaigner on this issue.
As this subject suggests, there is a grim story behind minerals mined in the Congo region. Sadly at this point, many are aware of little more. Yet we are directly concerned.
The term ‘conflict minerals’ implies minerals that are mined in armed and conflicted conditions. Congo has a vast concentration of minerals. These include:

  • Gold
  • Tungsten – used in domestic light bulbs
  • Tin – for household electronics
  • 80% of the world’s tantalum – a core ingredient for our mobile phones and laptops
Picture of minerals extracted in Congo 613 x 407
Congo has the richest natural resources in the world
Credit: Gebrueder Beetz

Such resource wealth makes Congo a unique country, but it has a mortifying paradox. Far from expected wealth, prosperity and peace does not nearly prevail here because of longstanding conflict in this country raging unrest and inequitable distribution of wealth, of the outrageous and inconceivable scale.

Civil chaos and corruption have long been known in the Congo

To understand Congo today we need to look at its history. Rooting from colonial days of King Leopold at the start of the 20th Century, there has been a dominant culture of plunder. Even following independence, this culture pervaded through the three-decade long presidency of Mobutu. A kleptocratic leader, he used the country’s resources to amass personal wealth.

The genocide of neighbouring Rwanda in 1994 erupted even greater unrest. War here encouraged rebels to proliferate war culture in Congo also. A result of chaos lead to the First Congo War (1996-1997), the deposing of president Mobutu – and an incontrollable situation of its mines and resources being taken over by illegitimate violent groups.

Ever since, eastern Congo has lived in a deep cycle of poverty and violence, fuelled by historical ethnic conflict. Every area is controlled by different armed groups who use brutality en masse to induce fear to take control of others. Mining here motivates these armed groups to exploit local populations for their own personal wealth, and this is achieved through serious violation of human rights.

Picture of local Congolese exploited to extract minerals in hard conditions, size 613 x 407
Local Congolese are exploited to extract minerals and do not enjoy the fruits of their work. Credit: Gebrueder Beetz

We are directly implicated in these motivations – as these minerals are mined for demand by western electronic companies – for our smart phones, laptops and countless other everyday electronics.

How Congo’s conflict minerals persist

Unfortunately, tracing the source of incoming minerals is difficult. Transparency is lost in trading houses, through exportation and chemical refineries. Amnesty International’s aim is to investigate how companies can trace where their minerals have been exported from, to check they have not been sourced under human rights abuses.

We need a transparent process from source to electronic company. We need to put ethical pressures on all players included along the way.

Certain legislation has been developed to attempt this, but implementation is currently an issue. Congo’s sovereignty has only marginally improved since the end of the Second Congo War (1997-2003). People need to be brought to justice but impunity is rife. Laws and guidelines exist, but are painfully not enforced by authorities. Neither is Security Sector Reform proving effective enough. Crimes and unimaginable human rights abuses continue to be gotten away with.

Student action for conflict-free and human rights-friendly products

UCLU Amnesty International Society feels strongly about this issue and wants to lead UCL in joining the international-wide ‘Conflict-Free Campus Initiative’. The society plans to join up with other UCL Union societies to urge UCL to pledge to divest in conflict minerals.
At present, despite our intentions, there is no way to be selective in our consumer choices. When conflict-free minerals and consequent technology eventually become available the idea is that those who have pledged in this initiative – hopefully including UCL – will immediately turn their investment to them instead. National Union of Students, and St Andrews and Exeter Universities have already pledged. We need to follow them.

As a university we are powerful in this campaign: we are major purchasers and consumers of electronic companies, and together universities are credible institutions to put pressure on companies to responsibly invest in Congo’s minerals.

Beyond unimaginable human rights abuses are taking place in the Congo to this day, and minerals are the underlying ammunition. In the last 15 years more than 5 million people have died and 300,000 women raped. It is expected this conflict is the greatest since World War Two, yet worldwide people are rarely aware of the atrocities.
At the moment through ‘Conflict-Free Campus Initiative’ we want to raise as much awareness. Awareness will create the demand for divestment.

UCLU Amnesty International Society watched the film ‘Blood in the Mobile’, which cuttingly explores the questions in this issue.

For wider knowledge on the historical and political make up of Congo, the following provide great insights:

Gauri Kangai


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