Why the DR Congo is putting Apple on the spot

End of April, several international media relayed accusations against Apple sourcing ‘conflict minerals’ from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The reality behind these allegations is however quite complex. The reasons for the Congolese government to speak out now, seem to go beyond concerns related to human rights violations along mineral supply chains. The allegations are rather triggered by regional tensions in the Great Lakes region and the worsening security situation in Congo’s North Kivu province. Nevertheless, preoccupations over industry efforts to source more responsibly are valid.

Why now?

There is a fair chance that Apple has so-called ‘conflict minerals’ in its supply chains. That actually goes for many international tech companies that face challenges in the regional (mineral) trade. Issues affecting their supply chain are not new, and include smuggling and tax evasion by mineral traders, corruption by state agents, the prevalence of the informal economy, and dysfunctional trace of origin systems. The question arises what triggered the Congolese government to denounce Apple, and why it does so now?

Mounting regional tensions between Rwanda and the DRC seem to have prompted the latter to speak out. Since 2021, the “March 23 Movement” (M23) has seized vast territories of Congo’s North Kivu province with military support from Rwanda, leading to increased anti-Rwandan sentiments in the DRC. In the run-up to the December 2023 presidential elections, the Tshisekedi government has further increased its anti-Rwanda discourse. While Rwanda does play an important role in the conflict in North Kivu, the Congolese government tends to put the blame for insecurity in eastern DRC entirely on Rwanda. In doing so, the Congolese government tries to mask its own failures with regard to the security situation in the east of the country (related to security sector reform, demobilization of armed groups, socio-economic challenges, and intercommunity tensions).

Within this anti-Rwanda climate, the DRC government has increasingly denounced the country’s loss of significant (tax) income due to the smuggling of minerals to its eastern neighbor. It engaged the law firm Amsterdam & Partners LLP to investigate these accusations. The tone of Amsterdam & Partners’ report, as well as its recommendations, fits the anti-Rwanda discourse very well: The report focuses on Rwanda’s role in illegal mineral trade, but fails to mention that other neighboring countries also facilitate smuggling from eastern DRC. Moreover, Apple seems to be used in the press release to attract international attention to the report’s findings.

In the press release on its report entitled Blood Minerals – The Laundering of DRC’s 3T Minerals by Rwanda and Private Entities, Amsterdam & Partners LLP immediately explains that the “report’s cover is emblazoned with a statement popularized by Congolese soccer players in recent silent protests: Everyone sees the massacres in eastern Congo. But everyone is silent.”

As such, the report imputes a direct link between mineral trade in the region, and conflict and human rights violations in eastern DRC — a logic that has been challenged by many observers, who underline that causes of conflict and insecurity are much more complex. A recent IPIS report on M23, for example, highlights the importance of tensions over access to land and local power to understand the conflict in North Kivu. Additionally, the role of natural resources in conflict needs to be nuanced. Illicit trade of natural resources is just one factor among many others that help to explain conflict dynamics, including access to land, intercommunity tensions, and their historical roots, failed Demobilization, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) programs for armed groups, and long-lasting governance issues such as elite capture, underperforming corrupt state services, and faltering mining sector formalization processes.

It is important to challenge Amsterdam & Partners’ oversimplified analysis of conflict in eastern DRC, and in particular the role of minerals in conflict, for several reasons:

  • The ‘conflict minerals’ narrative has not been helpful over the past fifteen years in finding structural solutions for sustainable peace in eastern DRC. On the contrary, by adopting an incorrect macro-perspective, it ignored local sensitivities and at times even fostered conflict.
  • Moreover, it risks creating a negative picture of the (artisanal) mining sector in eastern DRC, potentially reinforcing disengagement from mineral traders (and the downstream industry), while the sector is of crucial importance for the local economy, and for the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of families.

Additionally, the press release draws an incomplete picture of the issue of ‘conflict minerals’ in eastern DRC, stating for example that “These activities have fueled a cycle of violence and conflict by financing militias and terrorist groups, and have contributed to forced child labor and environmental devastation.” While non-state armed groups, or militias, were present at 29% of the mines in an IPIS sample in 2021-2023 (242 of 829 mines), the most pressing problem is the performance of the DRC’s national army. FARDC soldiers have developed several illegal ways of generating revenues, in and outside the mining sector. They engaged in illicit activities at 37% of the mining sites of the same IPIS sample.

Maps of interference at mining sites, by FARDC units and non-state armed groups.

DRC’s outrage over international inaction in response to Rwanda’s support to M23

In light of the international community’s failure to take decisive action against Rwanda, the attempt of DRC to draw attention to Rwanda’s military support to armed groups in DRC does not come as a surprise. 

Rwanda’s blatant military support to the M23 generated widespread international indignation. While several European governments and the EU have condemned Rwanda’s support to M23, Europe however continued to engage with Rwanda over the past few years, in fields that are at times closely linked to security and mineral supply chains. This includes for instance, the signature of an MoU on Sustainable Raw Materials Value Chains, a military aid package for Kigali linked to the deployment of its troops in Mozambique, or the UK-Rwanda asylum plan. European countries and the European Union should be mindful that (their communication around) these collaborations with Kigali are very badly perceived in DRC.

What about Rwanda and Apple?

Amsterdam & Partners rightfully flags the issue of mineral smuggling. The phenomenon deprives the DRC of tax income, and neighboring countries (including Rwanda) facilitate, and profit from, this illegal trade.

The focus on Apple’s role in the press release is quite provocative, as the tech company has been one of the most active ones over the past 10 years in thinking constructively about ways to make supply chains more responsible, without disengaging from the Great Lakes region (and from ‘Conflict-affected and high-risk areas’ (CAHRAs) in general).

While the press release focuses on Apple, the full report does explain more generally how smuggling affects the mineral trade in the region. Consequently, it also lists a range of other companies that source from the region and are also concerned by the accusations. However, it needs to be underlined that these companies are not directly involved in mineral trade in the Great Lakes region, but rely on a range of suppliers that buy minerals from the region. That said, downstream actors, such as the big tech companies (including Apple), do have the obligation to implement supply chain due diligence, which, according to OECD, requires them to respect human rights and avoid contributing to conflict through their mineral sourcing practices.

To identify and mitigate risks in their supply chains of tin, tantalum (coltan) and tungsten (in short 3T minerals) in the Great Lakes region, suppliers, and downstream companies currently rely partly on the International Tin Supply Chain Initiative (iTSCi), which has been established by the International Tin Association (ITA). iTSCi establishes traceability in the upstream 3T mineral chain (labeling 3T mineral production at the mine site and along the trade route to verify the origin). It implements related activities to monitor the supply chains, including incident reporting, risk management, etc.

Over the past years, different types of actors – including Global Witness, Responsible Minerals Initiative (RMI), and academics (e.g. University of Antwerp, and Musamba J. and Vogel C.) – have voiced serious concerns about iTSCi’s functioning. IPIS’ field research in artisanal mining areas in eastern DRC also came across many cases of inaccurate tagging practices, loopholes in traceability, and ‘contamination’ of supply chains that are covered by traceability. An internal UN report even suspected iTSCi of allowing or even “actively facilitating” the massive leakage of fraudulent coltan. All these reports raise serious concerns regarding the efficiency of ‘responsible sourcing’ in eastern DRC. Both downstream (including tech companies) and midstream (smelters and refiners) actors should demand that their upstream due diligence systems, and in particular iTSCi, be more accountable for the deficiencies in their system. A better consultation of, and closer collaboration with, actors in the DRC (civil society, government representatives, and local economic actors) for the design, implementation, and evaluation of these systems is a crucial first step.

Finally, Rwanda’s role in illegal mineral trade should not be underestimated. The country is, for example, suspected for some time of capturing part of the coltan production from the important Rubaya mining sites. The Congolese government now accuses M23 of directly exporting Rubaya’s production to Rwanda after the armed group conquered the area just a few weeks ago. Issues however extend beyond Rwanda and beyond minerals. For several decades, it has been an enormous challenge to export Congolese minerals via legal supply chains. Both within DRC, and across the border, a wide range of stakeholders, including formal institutions, are involved in cross-border smuggling to Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda. While Rwanda is historically the main point of export for Congolese 3T minerals, Uganda and Rwanda have been in competition over the past years, to be the main gateway for Congolese gold to the world market. The competition over mineral export routes is part of larger regional geopolitics: eastern DRC is an important marketplace for its neighbors, including for agricultural products, consumer goods, and services. It seems that these regional tensions, and frustrations over DRC’s closer collaboration with Burundi and Uganda, have prompted Rwanda to provide military support to M23.

Further reading

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This briefing was produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The contents of the editorial is the sole responsibility of IPIS and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.