Supporting California's Call to go "Conflict-Free"

Last year, President Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.  Buried within the Act is a provision that addresses an ongoing activity at the intersection of business and human rights: the mining of minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Section 1502, or the Conflict Minerals provision, essentially requires publicly traded companies to submit annual reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission disclosing whether their products contain minerals from Congo or adjacent countries. If so, these companies must explain the actions taken to trace the origin of the minerals and whether they come from mines that help fund armed conflict.  While the Commission is still working out the rules pertaining to how exactly this gets done, the provision itself has received strong support.

Here’s why such disclosure and due diligence are necessary: armed groups perpetrating the violence finance themselves through trade in four main minerals – tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold.  These minerals are turned into metals that are then sold on to be used in the very mobile phones and laptops you are using now.  If we as consumers knew which products contained the minerals from these mines, we could use our purchasing power as a force for change.

SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

Victims Testify to End Sexual Violence in the Congo

(c) Amnesty International


Unimaginable and unacceptable.” These are the words Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. special envoy for sexual violence and conflict, recently told the U.N. Security Council after finding out that Congolese government soldiers may have been the perpetrators of murder and rape against at least 200 women, in Luvungi, Congo.  And all the while, U.N. peace keepers were stationed 20 miles away.

After the mass rape, the United Nations released a report on the incident detailing the failures of the peacekeeping mission in not acting on reports of increased treatments of rape in a nearby hospital.

Victims are now testifying in front of a U.N. panel, but moving forward, the key to ending mass violence against women in the Congo is ending impunity for the offenders.

The international community and specifically the United States must play a lead role in demanding an end to impunity for the horrific sexual violence that reoccurs in Congo.  We are calling for an urgent investigation of government soldiers who failed to protect civilians or perpetrated crimes themselves.  In addition, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo must implement a plan to better protect Congolese civilians and ensure that an atrocity like this never happens again.

Exploitation in the DRC fuels mining trade: Apple, Dell look the other way

Prominent US and multinational companies such as Apple, Dell, Motorola, Nokia, and Hewlett-Packard are among the businesses pinpointed as culprits in an unflinching, new report released by Global Witness that details the often noxious connections between the illegal mining trade, widespread human rights abuses and tech and mining firms.

The detailed analysis provides excellent current background on the situation, and names the names of companies operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that trade in minerals in ways that ignore corporate social responsibility and perpetuate the conflict.

High-tech human rights abuses

The illegal mining and horrific human rights abuses against civilians – including the use of child soldiers and sexual violence as a weapon of war – have previously prompted a UN Expert Panel review that resulted in a large number of companies reforming their activities or leaving the country.  Yet the new Global Witness report is clear: “no effective action has been taken to stop this murderous trade.” Global Witness states that it is not calling for a complete trade embargo or targeting artisanal mining per se, but is focusing on stopping the mining intertwined with conflict and abuse.

In many ways, the DRC’s plight hearkens back to colonialism and chartered companies empowered to make war in order to capture resources.  But today’s neo-colonialism is more indirect and up-to-date, being linked to some of the world’s most sophisticated new technologies.  The minerals cassiterite (tin ore) and coltan are important components in cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices, and the DRC is a primary global source.

Violations in the region have continued despite the recent rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda and the integration into the Congolese army of one of the leading rebel groups (the Congrès national pour la défense du people, or CNDP, whose leader Bosco Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court).  Both the army and remaining rebel groups such as the Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda (FDLR) are implicated in the illegal mining and abuses – even cooperating at times with each other as well as with the companies to share the spoils.  Rule of law in the DRC is either weak or, in many provinces, effectively absent.

The new report states that the named companies exploiting this lack of oversight had almost no controls or due diligence processes to ensure that their supply chain contained no conflict minerals.

Global brands such as many of these companies  participate in industry initiatives including the Electronic Industry Code of Conduct which require them to hold suppliers to high standards.  Yet “suppliers” has often been interpreted to apply to middlemen but not suppliers further down the supply chain.

Apple’s stance leaves much to be desired

When questioned about these specific practices and their obligations to uphold certain standards, companies generally pointed to generic corporate social responsibility statements.  Only in rare cases did companies seem to recognize the need for greater due diligence.  In most cases, no sense of urgency or clear commitment to applying checks to the entire supply chain was expressed.  Instead, companies relied frequently on the fact that they purchased from licensed exporters.

In a statement accompanying release of the report, Global Witness Director Patrick Alley stated:

It is not good enough for companies to say they buy only from licensed exporters, when they know full well that their middlemen buy from armed groups. The failure of governments to hold companies to account, of Burundi and Rwanda to restrict the trade across their borders, and of donors and diplomats to address explicitly the role of the mineral trade, have all contributed to the continuation of a conflict that has killed millions and displaced many more.

Apple’s response was a bare bones reference to its supplier responsibility policy (via a web link that no longer works).  Nokia, at least, gave the more commendable explanation that while it purchases raw materials through suppliers rather than directly, this “does not change the fact that we have the responsibility over everything that goes into making a Nokia product.”

Hewlett-Packard has room for improvement

Hewlett-Packard’s response shows similar progress in understanding the issue, with the company explaining that it has focused on first-tier suppliers where it thinks it “has the most influence” (an assumption that may be questioned when the underlying harms and their locations are considered).  But HP has successfully reached down to many second-tier suppliers as well, via its first tier suppliers (who have told HP that DRC coltan is “not used in their products supplied to HP”).  HP presumably does not merely accept such assertions (which would be akin to the U.S. government accepting diplomatic assurances that the countries to whom it sends terror suspects “do not torture”), but audits them to some extent.  And HP has the reputation of being better than most companies at such audit processes, stating that it is working with the first-tier suppliers of notebook computers to “map their supply chain down to the extractives level.”

Lukewarm responses Motorola and Dell

The responses from Motorola and Dell were in-between the extremes represented by the nonchalant reply from Apple, on the one hand, and the more detailed and responsive replies from Nokia and HP, on the other.  Motorola and Dell stated that they require high standards in their supply chains, expect their suppliers to do the same, and participate in industry initiatives to that end.

Moving toward real social corporate responsibility

Laudable industry initiatives such as the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) do aim to enhance traceability of minerals beyond supplier certifications to the actual mines involved, but thus far have failed to change what Nokia rightly calls a status quo that is “not  . . . acceptable.”

The continued corporate role in this conflict remains shameful and underappreciated but fundamental.  The new Global Witness report usefully reawakens slumbering attention, and clearly demonstrates the need for strengthened accountability mechanisms that truly end what the report calls “the impunity protecting those engaged in illicit mineral exploitation and trade.”

In addition to illustrating the grave risks faced by the extractive industry and companies active in conflict situations, the new report provides sensible recommendations for direly needed urgent actions by governments, corporations, individuals, the UN, and the international community at large to finally call a halt to the ongoing tragedy in the DRC.

Chip Pitts is a lecturer at Stanford Law School, former Chief Legal Officer of Nokia Inc., and former Chair of Amnesty International USA.  He is the co-author and editor of the new book, Corporate Accountability: A Legal Analysis (Lexis Nexis 2009); all the royalties from book sales will benefit human rights and sustainability charities.

Fight Poverty by Protecting Human Rights

(Originally published on the Boston Globe)

On the evening of Sept. 18, 2007, six men broke into the home of Justine Masika Bihamba in Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Bihamba wasn’t home, but six of her children, ages 5 to 24, were. The men, reportedly government soldiers, tied up the children at gunpoint and abused two daughters in their 20s, sexually assaulting one with a knife. Bihamba and her children identified the attackers to military police but authorities refused to arrest the suspects, saying there was no evidence against them. They remain free today.

The men targeted Bihamba’s children because of her work coordinating medical and psychological care for women and girls who have been sexually assaulted. In the violent conflict that has raged in Congo for a decade, rape is a weapon of war.

The conflict has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and forced more than a million to flee; it is the latest in Congo’s long and bloody history. During the colonial period, ivory and rubber were the prizes for which Europeans sacrificed African lives. Today, the fighting is fueled by the country’s vast mineral resources – diamonds, gold and coltan, which is used in all mobile phones and laptops. Armed groups control mines and export minerals illegally, using the cash to buy arms.

The mineral wealth is of little benefit to the impoverished Congolese population.

More than 1,000 people die daily from preventable diseases such as cholera and dysentery. Most are children. These preventable deaths are human rights abuses in violation of international treaties on the right to health and the rights of the child. Until corporations that benefit from the mineral trade, together with the Congolese government and the international community, are persuaded to end the abuses, cases like Bihamba’s will keep recurring.

Amnesty International campaigns to ensure that human rights defenders like her can carry out their vital work in safety. But to stop the carnage in Congo, we recognize that we must also fight poverty – what Mahatma Gandhi called “the worst form of violence.”

People are accustomed to thinking of human rights violations as abuses committed by repressive regimes – torture, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, enforced “disappearances,” political assassination, and the like.

But the international human rights framework is much broader. Sixty years ago, following the brutality of World War II when the Nazis denied Jews, Roma, gays, and others their very right to exist, the response of the international community was unequivocal – human rights had to be based on the principle of inclusion. That is, everyone is entitled to the same set of rights by virtue of being human. These include the right to freedom from torture and arbitrary imprisonment, and no less importantly, the right to adequate food and shelter, basic healthcare, education and employment. In short, the right to live a life of dignity.

People living in poverty are trapped, much like political prisoners.

Now, as the global economic crisis threatens to push an estimated 53 million more people into poverty this year, Amnesty International is launching the most ambitious campaign of its nearly 50-year history.

Just as we have fought effectively to protect civil and political rights on behalf of tens of thousands of political prisoners, we intend to mobilize our volunteers and supporters to hold governments, corporations, armed groups, and others accountable for the human rights abuses that drive millions around the world into poverty.

Governments have reneged on human rights obligations in the belief that economic growth alone would lift all boats. But now the tide is receding. Virtually none of the growth of the last two decades benefited poor and marginalized communities; instead, the gap between rich and poor only deepened in many parts of the world.

All human rights are interlinked, as the Congo demonstrates. If development was based on the fulfillment of basic human rights instead of skewed toward enriching a few at the expense of many, we might not be witnessing the violent upheaval of Congo and elsewhere.

Without an approach to poverty and development that puts human rights first, there will be many more stories like that of Justine Masika Bihamba.

Congolese Women Fight Sexual Violence

In a powerful new video Oxfam America shows the fight of Congolese women against sexual violence (thanks to change.org for bringing this to the attention of a wider audience). It features the courageous story of Justine Masika Bihamba, a women’s human rights defender for who we are actively campaigning for. Justine is coordinator for Synergy of Women for Victims of Sexual Violence (Synergie des femmes contre les violence sexuelles), an organization that helps survivors of sexual violence. In the context of the Democratic Republic of Congo, her story is truly impressive, to say the least.

DRC: 40,000 Signatures for Obama

When I came to work one day this week, I found two thick packages at my desk: They were filled with signed petitions on ending sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was really impressed by how much activists continue to speak out about human rights violations in the Eastern DRC, even when the issue has once again disappeared from the headlines of major media outlets.

The petition was initiated by Raise Hope for Congo and AIUSA signed on to it last fall. Among other things, it asks President Obama to urge Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA) when it is reintroduced later this year. In total, 40,000 people signed the petition, including 9,000 AIUSA members! The Raise Hope for Congo campaign delivered the signatures to President Obama this week, asking him to make an announcement on International Women’s Day on March 8. We’ll definitely look out for that!

Here are some of the things I-VAWA would do in cases such as the crisis in eastern Congo:

  • Increase legal and judicial protection to address violence against women and girls;
  • Increase health sector capacity to address violence against women and girls;
  • Change social norms to end violence against women and girls;
  • Increase U.S. training of overseas foreign security forces on violence against women and girls.

If the International Violence Against Women Act is adopted, the current situation in eastern Congo could be drastically changed by directing U.S. foreign aid towards programs that prevent and respond to violence.

The situation in eastern DRC remains extremely volatile. The recent arrest of CNDP leader Lauren Nkunda is a step in the right direction, but it’s too early to lean back and relax. I have no doubt activists around the country will agree with me and keep up the great work.

United Nations Must Re-Impose Arms Embargo on DRC Government Forces

According to a UN Panel of Expert’s report released last Friday, government security forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are providing arms and ammunition to the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) in violation of the UN arms embargo on DRC.  In addition, the DRC government continues to be a major source of weapons for other armed groups in the DRC.

Congolese refugees at the DRC/Uganda border in Ishasha

Congolese refugees at the DRC/Uganda border in Ishasha

Mainly a Rwandan Hutu armed insurgent group that contains remnants of forces allegedly responsible for the 1994 Rwandan genocide, FDLR has been responsible for mass atrocities, including the unlawful killings of civilians, abductions, and rape, and continues to fuel devastation in the DRC.  The DRC government, FDLR, and mayi-mayi militias are fighting against the rebel armed group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), which has also committed grave human rights violations.

The UN Security Council is set to review the Panel’s report tomorrow, which includes additional evidence of the Rwandan government providing military support to the CNDP, including the provision of child soldiers.  The report also shows that the U.S. government has failed to notify the UN Peacekeeping Mission in DRC (MONUC) of its efforts to train DRC government forces as required by paragraph 5 of UN Resolution 1807 (2008).

In March 2008, Amnesty appealed to the UN Security Council not to ease the arms embargo on supplies to non-integrated DRC government army brigades anywhere in the DRC and brigades going through integration in the east of the country.  However, the Council eased this part of the embargo among other import restrictions.  The consequences of the relaxation of the embargo have been very damaging.

Tomorrow, the UN Security Council has an opportunity to remedy this past decision.  As such, in order to prevent diversion from official DRC holdings, all transfers to DRC government units deployed in eastern DRC should be made by prior arrangement under MONUC supervision among several other critical factors that the UN Security Council should adopt.

A Stronger US Stance Against Mass Atrocities?

With every day that passes, grave human rights violations continue in places like Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma. President-elect Barack Obama’s recent personnel decisions have fostered speculations that we will see a stronger US stance against the mass atrocities that are perpetrated in these countries.

Obama’s most recent pick: Today, he nominated Susan Rice as US Ambassador to the United Nations. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2007, Rice has described US policy towards the crisis in Darfur as “Inaction in the Face of Genocide”. Jerry Fowler of the Save Darfur Coalition praised the appointment and said Obama’s decision “sends a very strong signal about his approach to the issue of Sudan and Africa in general”.

Recently, Obama selected Samantha Power as a member of the Agency Review Team that will review the US State Department to make policy, budgetary and personnel recommendations. With her seminal work, A problem from hell. America and the Age of Genocide, Power has inspired scores of people in this country – including myself – to act against mass atrocities.

Will Rice and Power’s expertise and commitment to stopping mass atrocities be enough to actually change the priorities of US foreign policy?

Posted in USA

Rally Echoes Congolese Plea for Help

Amnesty International activists urge the US government to support the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC. White House, November 23 (c) Msia Clark

Amnesty International activists urge the US government to support the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC. White House, November 23 (c) Msia Clark

Rallying in front of the White House on November 23, I joined over 100 activists in expressing our concern for Congolese civilians, as armed groups turn their homes into a battlefield. Three messages continue to stand out in my mind: Protect the People! Stop Violence against Women! and No Child Soldiers!

Amnesty International USA organized this event in response to the humanitarian and human rights emergency in the Democratic Republic of Congo, calling on the United States to follow through with their support of a new UN Security Council Resolution  by delivering the needed troops and equipment. The resolution passed unanimously, showing all nations understand how crucial the success of the UN peacekeeping mission is to bringing the killings, rape and abduction of children to a halt.  Now, these countries must follow through with their commitment by providing troops and equipment.

Days before the resolution, 44 Congolese NGOs wrote a letter requesting the UN Security Council and international leaders immediately supply troop reinforcements. The message that was consistent throughout their letter was that words of concern are not enough. They exclaimed, “Diplomacy always takes time, and we understand this, but unfortunately we do not have time. The population of North Kivu is at risk now; with each day that passes, more and more people die”.

The desperation is clear on the faces captured in the photos taken by reporters in the crisis region. If the troops are not on the ground and properly equipped, the UN’s resolution will be meaningless.

What Nkunda Wants

Alice Eve

Alice Eve

Laurent Nkunda considers himself a man of diplomacy and politics. Unfortunately, whether we agree or not has become academic. This war criminal has a following that is growing and will continue to: aside from his Tutsi advocates there is suspicion that he is allied with ethnic Tutsi Paul Kagame (Rwanda’s President), and furthermore it has been speculated that he has the support of the Christian American right. This is a powerful foundation from which to wage a war of unthinkable proportions. Surely the question to ask at this stage is:
What does Nkunda want?

We know the UN Security Council has approved 3,100 additional peace keepers. Hopefully  this will be enough. As Ugandan Eddie Kwizera notes, “there is no peace to keep”. The DRC is the size of Western Europe, yet MONUC (Mission des Nations Unies en République Démocratique du Congo) the biggest peace keeping mission in the world, still only has 17,000 troops there. Neighbouring state Angola acknowledges that: “the direct and indirect interference by third parties will only worsen the conflict”.

The World Health Organization as of last Tuesday has named cholera a ‘serious risk’ in the region. This is perhaps the most concerning of all the developments in the region since August.  Cholera stands to be as powerful a killer as the men with guns. It can be passed on with just a handshake.

It is a handshake that needs to be considered. We have seen genocide just one generation ago in Rwanda. In the 1960′s we saw another failed peace-keeping mission in the area (UNOC). Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General UN, has said the UN forces suffer from a “lack of adequate equipment or a clear chain of command”. Fighting fire with fire is not the answer.

It may seem insufferable to the Gordon Browns and Bernard Kouchners to think of Nkunda as a leader, but a leader he is. Nkunda’s CNDP (National Congress for the Defence of the People) is a growing army with a following. It is hypocritical and embarrassing to be preaching peace only to discover that MONUC finds itself lending its sympathies to the Congolese army. It publicly admonishes the CNDP for abuses that the Congolese army are equally guilty of. How can we expect the CNDP to behave rationally if MONUC itself is taking sides?

As it is the Western idea of partition that was imposed on this region (the Belgian colonizers deciding the Tutsis were a superior race and so creating divisions), the Western idea of peace talks must be followed through with. Finding out what Nkunda wants, and genuinely engaging with and understanding the desires and divisions is the only way forward. If Kabila continues to ignore requests for direct negotiations, Nkunda could be well on his way to fulfilling his promise of toppling his government.

Of course there is an inherent problem, the Congo is mineral rich. Perhaps now would be a good time to stop exploiting Africa’s abundant natural resources. With the current state of the world maybe we should be more concerned with growing our own carrots.