Gold, Coltan & Diamonds: Pillaging in the Congo

Argor-Hereaus, one of the world’s leading gold refiners, is currently being investigated by Swiss authorities on suspicion of money laundering linked to gold pillaged from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004 and 2005. The three tons of gold were later sold to companies in the Channel Islands and Great Britain. Gold is one of Congo’s most infamous conflict resources. It is widely available in the Kivu conflict region, and gold is less traceable than diamonds as there is no jewelry standard for verifying its origination. A legal advocacy group based in Geneva, Track Impunity Always, says the sale of the gold “contributed to financing the operations of an unlawful armed group in a brutal conflict,” which has claimed more than 5 million lives since 1998.[1]

Pillaging has long been denounced as a war crime. In World War II, many businesses pillaged resources from Europe to supply German factories. The Nuremberg Trials held some of these companies accountable. Paul Pleiger, a German businessman, was sentenced to 15 years in prison by a United States military tribunal for the illegal mining of coal in Poland. Today the corporate pillaging of natural resources has not been addressed despite the denunciation of pillaging. For example, the United States declared pillaging a federal crime in the War Crimes Act of 1996. Modern companies have been largely free to act with impunity in conflict regions.[2]

The widespread exploitation of Congo’s resources has financed conflicts in the Congo since the late 18th century. Belgian colonial rulers enslaved locals to extract rubber, ivory and timber from the region. The novelist Joseph Conrad described this pillage as “the vilest scramble for lot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience.”[3] The Belgians ruled the area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo until 1960, when the Republic of the Congo became an independent country.[4]

congo_resourcesNatural Minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Congo’s first prime minister, Lumumba, spoke out against Belgian colonial rule and the West. The CIA paid a young government official, Mobutu Sese Seko, to keep an eye on Lumumba’s relationship with communist links to Russia. Mobutu’s information allowed the Belgians and Americans to assassinate Lumumba, Mobutu was installed as president, and the Republic of the Congo was renamed Zaire. During the Cold War, Zaire was a springboard for operations against Soviet-backed Angola.[5]

President Mobutu’s regime was rampantly corrupt and used sexual abuse as a method of torture.[6] Mobutu called himself “the Messiah” and stole between 4-15 billion dollars during his thirty-two year rule. The Congo’s rich minerals and Western backing were what kept Mobutu in power for so long. The Congo is the biggest producer of diamonds in the world and its land is rich in tin, copper, zinc, and gold. When the Cold War ended in 1990, Zaire ceased to be of interest to the United States. Mobutu’s rampant spending and the lack of foreign aid caused debts to run into the billions.

The Rwandan Genocide (1994) exacerbated Zaire’s internal problems. 1.5 million people fled into eastern Congo and lived in refugee camps on the border. Many of the refugees were Hutus that had massacred Tutsis in the genocide. It was in these refugee camps that the Interahamwe, the Hutu extremist group that led the genocide, began to regroup. The Interahamwe sent out raiding parties to terrorize villages and attack the Congolese Tutsis. Mobutu, suffering from prostate cancer, did nothing to stop these attacks.

mobutuMobutu Sese Seko in his famous leopard skin toque

Anti-Mobutu rebels began to gather an army. When the Tutsi government was back in power in Rwanda, they wanted to eradicate the Interahamwe forces. The Ugandan President introduced Laurent Kabila, a military commander, to Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda. Kabila owned a gold mine where he smuggled gold to the Rwandan army, and in 1975 he captured three Stanford students and held them for ransom. Nevertheless, Kabila became the leader of the anti-Mobutu rebels, and he defeated Mobutu’s corrupt army in less than a year.[7]

Kabila quickly proved himself to be an unstable leader. He bankrupted businesses, idealized Communism and was hostile to Western powers. In 1998, Kabila turned on the Rwandans in an effort to gain public support. In a chilling echo of the Rwandan Genocide, he implored the Congolese to take up whatever arms they had in their homes and chop the Rwandans to pieces on the national radio. He also targeted Ugandans. Rwanda and Uganda, furious with Kabila, seized most of eastern Congo. Angola, Zimbabwe and Zambia entered on the side of Kabila in exchange for oil concessions and right to mine and export diamonds and other minerals. Civilians suffered the most from these attacks.[8]

In 2000, coltan was discovered in the Congo. Coltan is used to conduct electrical charges in electronics such as computers and cell phones. It is extremely rare, only found in a few countries around the world. Rebel forces were attracted to these reserves, and local communities were forced to form resistance groups to defend themselves. They called themselves Mai Mai. This well meaning resistance movement quickly degenerated into groups of marauding young men who raided villages, raped women, and began financing themselves by trading in minerals. By 2003, 3.4 million Congolese had fled their homes in response to attacks from various militant groups.

coltan-mineColtan Mine

In 2006, the Democratic Republic of the Congo had its first democratic elections, financed largely by Western Europe. Joseph Kabila, the son of Laurent Kabila, was elected as President. [9] Kabila had assumed control of the country following the assassination of his father, and he drafted and adopted the constitution of the third republic.

Although international and national peace agreements in 2002 and 2003 brought an official end to hostilities, the unrest continues. Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi who fought with Laurent Kabila, mounted a rebellion against the government claiming to defend the Congolese Tutsis. Nkunda led his troops into the city of Bukavu, where six Tutsis had recently been murdered by government troops, and took control of the city by force and gang raping.[10] In 2012, the United Nations accused M23 rebels of raping and killing civilians in eastern DRC.

06congo-articleLargeChildren play on a rebel tank near Kibumba

The M23 is a rebel movement supported by Rwanda and Uganda that has recently agreed to lay down their arms and pursue change through political means. The announcement came just hours after a major victory by government forces in Tshanzu and Ruyoni. International pressures, such as an increased United Nations peacekeeping presence, and a government promise that it would sign a peace deal if the rebels laid down their arms were pivotal in the decision.[11] Today United Nations peacekeeping troops have been aiding Congolese troops in operations against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, Hutu rebel militia operating along the Rwanda’s border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Ugandan Islamic extremist militias.[12]

The Congo has more than half of the world’s cobalt, a third of the world’s diamonds, and 70% of the world’s coltan; it has the potential to lift Africa out of poverty. Holding companies legally accountable for their actions can help stop these egregious wars by stopping funds. Western states have long been complicit in the Congo’s history of injustices. Holding companies accountable for modern pillaging is an important step in ending this atrocious legacy.

 


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24811420

[2] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/15/opinion/punish-companies-that-pillage.html

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/15/opinion/punish-companies-that-pillage.html

[4] (Note: There are “two Congos” – one ruled by the French, today’s Republic of the Congo, and one ruled by the Belgians, currently Democratic of the Republic of the Congo. The DRC was confusingly called the Republic of the Congo back after independence.)

[5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-13283212

[6] Kamemba, Claude (June 2001). “The Democratic Republic of Congo: From Independence to Africa’s First World War”UNHCR Centre for Documentation and Research. Paper No. 16/2000.

[7] Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “Africa: Congo, Democratic Republic of the.” The World Factbook. 2013. [accessed 18 February 2013].

[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/16/sunday-review/congos-never-ending-war.html

[9] Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “Africa: Congo, Democratic Republic of the.” The World Factbook. 2013. [accessed 18 February 2013].

[11] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/06/world/africa/m23-rebels-democratic-republic-congo.html?pagewanted=2

[12] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/11/world/africa/congo-un-forces-begin-campaign-against-rwandan-hutu-militia.html

 

 

 

 

2 comments

  • Really interesting article. Great analysis. That last statement “The Congo has more than half of the world’s cobalt, a third of the world’s diamonds, and 70% of the world’s coltan; it has the potential to lift Africa out of poverty” really speaks volumes to the power Congo holds and the importance that that power stay within the hands of the peacekeepers.

  • Really interesting article. Great analysis. That last statement “The Congo has more than half of the world’s cobalt, a third of the world’s diamonds, and 70% of the world’s coltan; it has the potential to lift Africa out of poverty” really speaks volumes to the power Congo holds and the importance that that power stay within the hands of the peacekeepers.

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