The conflict over conflict mineral sanctions

UNITED Nations and US programs running at costs of billions of dollars have failed to curb conflict mineral movements in Africa – but all hope is not lost.

Justin Niessner

Speakers at a UN Security Council luncheon on the last day of the Africa Down Under conference in Perth confirmed a need for increased collaboration between all stakeholders but found the issue of sanctions in conflict mineral warzones to be a consistent point of contention.

The panel, moderated by former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade director Jeff Hart, highlighted the usefulness of sanctions as a tool for transitioning countries back to acceptable business practices, while industry-connected comments from the floor expressed frustrations with the effectiveness of embargo strategies.

Australia-Africa Mining Industry Group chairman Bill Turner joined the panel and perhaps best reflected the sentiments of many delegates, flagging what he deemed as huge misuses of international funds.

Turner cited a $US10 billion ($A10.7 billion) UN security program in the Democratic Republic of Congo involving some 20,000 troops and a US certification process to control the import of conflict minerals costing $3-4 billion initially and some $200 million a year.

“Is that a smart use of money?” Turner asked.

“To me, it’s not. I just wonder how there can be a more productive collaboration amongst all these people who are trying to address this issue, a more productive allocation of resources to end up with a much better result.”

Turner evoked the familiar drivers of poverty and lack of economic options in Africa’s conflict minerals dilemma, proposing a better use of money to get businesses creating opportunities on the ground.

“Economic enterprise has to be part of the solution,” he said.

“If economic enterprise is not encouraged to come in there and provide opportunity for people, employ them more gainfully than running around with an AK-47, then we’re just going to half-do the job and this activity will migrate to some other part.”

Other panellists at the event included UN natural resources expert for the DRC Zobel Behalal and UN Ivory Coast natural resource expert Roberto Solazzo.

UN Security Council assistant secretary Jon Merrill rounded out the forum, sympathising with industry concerns that the companies that played by the rules in a sanctions scenario were at an economic disadvantage to the rebels.

“I don’t think anyone is suggesting sanctions are a solution,” Merrill said.

“They’re just one of many tools that governments use and continue to use to try and apply pressure and effect change.

“It can’t work if those who are responsible for the implementation of that are not on board and that is what you see in each and every sanctions regime in Africa and many other parts of the world.

“Some buy in and some buy out and there is no honour amongst thieves in that situation.”

Australian ambassador for the DRC and Zimbabwe Matthew Neuhaus challenged the panel with a suggestion that the removal of sanctions could help shine a light on what was happening in conflict-prone regions, in turn prompting consideration of alternative approaches.

“I think sanctions generally are much more effective in the way of showing righteous indignation at bad behaviour than they are at actually changing that behaviour,” he said.

Other questions probed possible alternative livelihoods for workers trapped in criminal artisanal mining and the ineffectiveness of two-tier sanction systems that seemed to penalise compliant Western players.

Solazzo, for his part, framed sanctions not as punishments or criticisms of the state but as a measured means of getting troubled countries “back to normality”

He may have been most insightful in recognising a fundamental discrepancy in expectations between multinational governance groups and profit-motivated miners.

“It’s more a difference in the appreciations in the timeframes,” Solazzo said.

“Industry as economic operators, of course, you think in the short to medium term. The UN tends to think in the medium to large term.

“Changes are not visible in economic terms because they are changes in the way [conflict-prone countries] do business.

“I know it’s not consolatory to say maybe what we are doing now pays off in 10 years.”

Behalal offered some bleak perspective on the DRC, noting that 98% of the country’s gold exports were illegal, with neighbours such as Uganda continuing to buy products despite international embargos.

He said the DRC had no cassiterite smelters or gold refineries, fuelling exports not only within Africa but to Asia, Latin America and even Europe.

“This is why the only solution should come from a global approach,” he said, echoing the consensus of the event that all parties should work to amplify collaboration.

“How to make it possible is to have some clear mechanism, so the sanctions are just there to push people and to say: ‘You have to do something and avoid buying minerals if you are convinced that those minerals are exported by the armed groups’

“I’m full of hope. I think things will change but it takes time.”