WikiLeaks Should Target Conflict Minerals

The whistleblowers’ website should expose the intricate and secretive supply chain of conflict materials from Africa, says Peter Mellgard.

WikiLeaks has successfully created a public online forum that broadcasts normally secretive communications to an enormous audience. Its most recent attacks on the American government and military have brought widespread condemnation from officials, diplomats and civilian experts. It remains to be seen whether this public shaming will create more transparent government or just encourage diplomats to be increasingly secretive. But there is one industry that deserves transparency, and could benefit from a good calling out — manufacturing that depends on conflict minerals, especially those mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

After the release of 250,000 classified State Department cables, WikiLeaks has been under attack from all quarters — from Amazon, Visa, and PayPal to the Swedish, British, and American governments. Many believe the charges against the public face of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, are part of an American led campaign to silence his embarrassing whistleblowing activities.

But Assange’s tactics have created a new atmosphere of wariness in government, international business and the military. Diplomats and executives alike are realizing their secrets might leak out to global condemnation.

This is not quite the case for those who operate in the murky business of conflict minerals like coltan, cobalt, tantalum, tin, even gold. The original source of these minerals, as well as the horrifying working conditions for miners, often goes unpublished and unpunished. Some international businesses are engaged in this system, intentionally or unintentionally. Others are part of a trend to increase transparency in the supply chain. Despite this, shady businessmen and militia leaders in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi disguise the source of many resources extracted from the eastern part of the country. They have been doing this for many years. The profits almost always find their way to the pockets of warlords and militia leaders, exacerbating conflict and human rights abuses. Once in the market, consumers and retailers are unable (or unwilling) to trace the source of the materials in their products.

Enter WikiLeaks. Assange may have set out to bring down “big government” but his project could also serve to bring accountability into a different opaque system. WikiLeaks is the perfect forum for investigating and publicizing the international trade in conflict minerals.

They have the world’s attention. The governments of the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, the European Union, as well as companies including Tradamet and Traxys in Belgium, Afrimex and Amalgamated Metal Corporation in England and the Thailand Smelting and Refining Corporation, are all at fault. WikiLeaks should call them out.

As the transparency organization Global Witness said in a 2008 report (PDF), “Economic actors are turning a blind eye to the impact of their trade. They continue to plead ignorance as to the origin of their supplies and hide behind a multitude of other excuses” for failing to stem the flow of conflict minerals. Other organizations, like Human Rights Watch and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are also engaged in this kind of research. However, their reports generate little enthusiasm for increased regulation on a global scale. Profits from conflict minerals continue to fuel atrocities in the Congo and elsewhere.

A report (PDF) in April by the dispute resolution organization RESOLVE highlights the hurdles faced by responsible companies and governments to stop the militarization of mining in the Congo.

Minerals originating in conflict regions can end up in electronics and many other products such as jewelry, airplanes, and automobiles. […] Companies face significant challenges due to a lack of transparency and complex structure and relationships in particular metals supply chains.

But still, the report asserts, “Companies, nongovernmental organizations, and agencies are working to address environmental impacts, labor rights, health and safety, displacement and resettlement, and other social and sustainability issues throughout the supply chain.”

This is undoubtedly true, and can be seen in the cooperation of a huge number of governments, international businesses and civil organizations at the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. But the success of WikiLeaks in drawing global attention to vast amounts of secretive communication presents an opportunity for finally ending the trade of conflict minerals. The threat of public shaming has already led to (small) changes in the way the United States conduct diplomacy abroad. What if that happened to the intricate and secretive supply chain of conflict minerals?

The problem is that the global trade in conflict minerals is more difficult to uncover than a few American diplomatic cables. Warlords from the Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda and the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (also known as the Conglolese National Army), as well as their business associates in Rwanda and Burundi, likely avoid paper trails and deal off the books precisely to avoid attention that might disrupt their operations. But international companies like the ones above are sure to have records on the source of their minerals — if not the actual mine then perhaps one of the comptoirs, the minerals trading houses in Goma and Bukavu in the eastern Congo. Perhaps one of their employees is unhappy with the moral standards of his company and has access to a thumb drive.

The United States government recently introduced legislation aimed at stemming the flow of conflict minerals from the Congo to the international market. The EU is considering a similar law. But the new whistleblowing culture founded by WikiLeaks can do more. A very public and very embarrassing information dump that links international companies based in Europe, Asia or the United States to conflict minerals coming out of the Congo would go a long way toward pushing through effective, globally enforceable legislation. And it would even brighten WikiLeaks’ image.