WikiLeaks Should Target Conflict Minerals

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 The original source of these minerals, as well as the horrifying working conditions for miners, often goes unpublished and unpunished.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.

Chinese Companies Defy United Nations Sanctions

The Washington Post reports that the Obama Administration has gathered evidence of Chinese companies helping Iran develop its nuclear program and missile technology. One American official associated with the investigation said the companies may be acting without knowledge of the Chinese government.

United Nations sanctions restrict international companies from investing in Iran’s nuclear and weapons programs. If the allegations are true, Chinese businesses are in violation of these sanctions but it is unclear how they might be punished.

American officials provided a “significant list” of Chinese companies and banks still doing business in Iran during a visit to Beijing last month. Washington faces a serious challenge in persuading China to wind down investments in the Iranian energy sector. Along with India, it would seem that China is trying to work around the sanctions to continue to do business in Iran.

To make matters worse, a special United Nations investigative panel presented a report on Darfur to the Security Council that shines light on a potentially illegal weapons trade between Beijing and Khartoum. The current round of sanctions prohibits the Sudanese government from importing weapons for its military campaign in the Darfur region. Recently, however, investigators discovered Chinese bullet casings at the sites of numerous attacks against international peacekeepers.

Beijing vehemently denied allegations that its weapons are being used in Darfur and has insisted that the report be rewritten.

Under the current sanctions regime, Sudan is permitted to import weapons as long as they are not employed in the Darfur campaign. As expected, the government in Khartoum has repeatedly skirted the rules.

Investigators told the Security Council that Sudanese forces have used more than a dozen type of Chinese ammunition against rebels in Darfur. Unidentified assailants also used Chinese bullets during several recent attacks on peacekeepers. These munitions have fueled a bloody conflict in which over 300,000 people have been killed and almost three million driven from their homes.

Iran Struggles With Nuclear Plant Delays

Iran’s first nuclear power plant in Bushehr will not be up and running until next year, according to reports from the Iranian atomic energy chief Ali Akbar Salehi. Iran began loading Russian-made fuel rods into the plant in August, expecting to connect it to the national power grid by October.

Salehi said on Wednesday that, “the fuel will be loaded to the core of the reactor completely by early November and … two to three months after that, electricity will be added to the networks.”

The announcement follows a long history of delays with the Bushehr plant. Reza Aghazadeh, Salehi’s predecessor, promised to turn on the switch back in 2008. This year, Iranian officials have blamed intense heat for more recent delays. Meanwhile, American and Israeli officials continue to condemn the facility as instrumental to Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.

Speculation has been swirling over the past few days about a different reason for the delays. Last weekend, Iranian officials confirmed that the computer virus known as Stuxnet had infected industrial infrastructure systems throughout the country. One official declared that as many as 30,000 individual computers had been affected.

There are analysts who suspect that Stuxnet was created to specifically target an industrial facility. Is it possible that the worm was designed to target Iran’s nuclear program? Ralph Langner, a German cybersecurity researcher, told the Christian Science Monitor that “Stuxnet is a 100-percent-directed cyber attack aimed at destroying an industrial process in the physical world.” His research into the virus, which is supported by other experienced cybersecurity analysts, asserts that Stuxnet “is looking for one specific place and time to attack one specific factory or power plant in the entire world.”

Iranian officials deny these assertions and no damage has been reported at the Bushehr facility. But Langner and other cybersecurity experts say that no one knows what Stuxnet’s ultimate aim truly is.

What is clear about the virus is that it is incredibly sophisticated. Analysts agree that it must have required a team of developers supported by a wealthy individual, organization, or perhaps a government. Once Stuxnet identifies its target and certain parameters are met, Lagner believes that “we can expect that something will blow up soon. Something big.”

The United States and Israel have both the software development capabilities and the motive to devise a sabotage effort aimed at Iran, but is this a likely scenario? It is hard to believe that the Obama Administration would employ computer espionage to try to derail Iran’s nuclear program. Similarly, the Israeli government, while certainly worried about an Iranian nuclear bomb, would probably turn to other means to delay or destroy the program. What’s more, they would probably wait until closer to the point of no return before showing their hand.

If and when the Bushehr plant comes online, it is expected to generate 2.5 percent of the country’s total electricity supply. This would be an important victory for President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s government, which has repeatedly rebuffed international efforts to put a stop to the Iranian nuclear program. But Stuxnet may have found its target. We don’t really know if the virus is the main reason for the delay in opening up the plant, or exactly what damage it has already caused, or what it is waiting for.

One question will remain regardless of the outcome in Bushehr: who created the Stuxnet virus in the first place, and for what purpose?