Rights group: Companies fuel Congo conflict

International companies are fueling the conflict in eastern Congo by not checking the origins of the minerals they buy, a human rights group said.

Some companies that source minerals in electronics such as mobile phones and computers purchase the materials from traders who work with rebels and soldiers who exploit civilians in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Global Witness said in its report relased Tuesday.

“All the warring parties in the DRC are systematically using forced labor and violent extortion in mining areas,” said Patrick Alley, director of the group, which focuses on natural resources-related conflicts.

The group called on companies trading in minerals from Congo to make sure they aren’t funding rebels and called on governments to cut off rebel access to mines and international trade networks.

The report specifically names the Thailand Smelting and Refining Corp. (Thaisarco), the world fifth largest tin-producing company, owned by British metals giant Amalgamated Metal Corp., British company Afrimex, and several Belgian companies, including Trademet and Traxys.

Global Witness also said that governments, including the United Kingdon and Belgium, are undermining their own development assistance and diplomatic efforts to end the 12-year conflict by failing to crack down on companies based within their borders.

The conflict in eastern Congo has been fueled by festering ethnic hatred left over from the 1994 slaughter of a half-million Tutsis in Rwanda, and Congo’s 1996-2002 civil wars, which drew neighboring countries in a rush to plunder Congo’s mineral wealth.

“Many mining areas in eastern DRC are controlled by rebels and the national army, who violently exploit civilians to retain access to valuable minerals, including cassiterite (tin ore), coltan and gold,” the 110-page report said.

Cassiterite and coltan are used to make mobile phones, computers and other electronics.

AMC denied the claims by Global Witness, saying it followed guidance on trade in the region set by the United Nations. The company said it has been taking part in an initiative since July 1 to trace the source of tin minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Both AMC and Thaisarco have always sought to comply with the requirements and recommendations of the U.N. in respect of minerals originating in the DRC,” the statement said.

The industry-wide measures were launched in July, after the Global Witness report was completed, calling for more transparency of the mineral supply chain.

“If the U.N. were to decide that a withdrawal from the trade is the most appropriate way forward, then Thaisarco would comply absolutely with their requirements,” the statement said. The company argued, however, that withdrawing would devastate local workers economically.

Congolese government spokesman Lambert Mende said officials are committed to fighting against corruption and that a commission has been set up to investigate.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.