NDP introduces conflict minerals bill to battle resource exploitation in Congo

OTTAWA – NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar has introduced a bill to fight the spread of so-called “conflict minerals” in the Democratic Republic of Congo — key components for cellphones, computers and a myriad of devices.

Dewar said that minerals from the war-ravaged nation have been used to fund an armed conflict that has claimed more than five million lives.

Dewar travelled to Congo four years ago and was deeply moved by the scale of the violence in the resource-rich African country.

He launched an awareness campaign Tuesday with the help of Quebec students, and the organizations Partnership Africa Canada and STAND Canada.

The campaign is similar to the efforts more than a decade ago that led to controls on the spread of blood diamonds, which were used to finance rebels in West Africa.

The rebels that terrorized Sierra Leone and Liberia became notorious for hacking off the limbs of children with machetes. In 2000, an international regulatory initiative called the Kimberley Process — which featured some key Canadian participants — helped stem the flow of blood diamonds from several African countries.

Last year, Charles Taylor — the former Liberian president and blood diamond profiteer — became the first former head of state to be convicted by an international war crimes court since the Second World War when he received a 50-year sentence from a Netherlands-based tribunal.

“We have to do what we did with blood diamonds,” Dewar told a news conference. “This is about doing what we’ve done before with the Kimberley Process.”

In Congo and the surrounding Great Lakes region of Africa, the minerals being extracted there have been used to support a 15-year conflict — often cited as the most bloody since the Second World War — that has claimed 5.5 million lives.

Rape and sexual violence has been a signature weapon of terror inflicted on innocent civilians in that conflict.

Dewar’s office says the minerals being exploited in the Congo include tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, all of which are used in the manufacture of cellphones.

“Gold is currently valued at $1,700 an ounce. So that is extremely lucrative and valuable to an armed group or to other actors who are acting illicitly,” said Joanne Lebert, director of the Great Lakes program with Partnership Africa Canada.

Dewar said he wants his bill to move the government towards signing on to guidelines adopted in May 2011 by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that call for corporate due diligence in the sector, and other international initiatives.

Dewar said he wants to help sever the supply chain that allows violence to flourish. He said most Canadians would be appalled if they understood the connection between sexual violence in the Congo conflict and the minerals that power their smartphones and appliances.

He said he consulted with players in the mining industry, as well as companies such as BlackBerry, based in Waterloo, Ont., and got good support.

A BlackBerry spokeswoman said in an emailed statement that the company took part in a multi-stakeholder consultation session last fall that was hosted by Dewar.

“We wanted to inform the stakeholders of our industry’s tremendous progress on this issue … and to encourage harmonization of any new legislation with the international standard for due diligence established by the OECD,” the statement said.

Dewar said similar meetings with mining companies also yielded positive results.

“When we got the input from mining it was about ensuring that this was going to promote the fact that there’s responsible mining going on by Canadian companies, and that this would help them,” he said.

“They are suppliers for these electronic companies and they want to be seen in a good light. They see this as a potential winner for them, to brand themselves as clean and ethical.”

Dewar said he wants grassroots support so politicians of all stripes will back private member’s legislation aimed at preventing the use of the minerals in electronic devices such as cellphones.

A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said Dewar’s bill will be reviewed “carefully,” which is standard practice.

“Our government remains concerned about the illegal exploitation of minerals, which only serve to prolong armed conflict and cost thousands of lives,” spokesman Rick Roth said in an email.

Among other contributions, Canada has co-founded and co-chaired a multi-stakeholder OECD working group that has established guidelines for a credible global supply chain for conflict-free minerals, he said.