World

How Do You Stop Intractable Conflict? Take Away The Profit

CREDIT: AP

A new organization called The Sentry will work to stem war across Africa by tracking its revenue streams.

“We acknowledge that this is an incredibly ambitious project,” Akshaya Kumar, who will help lead the initiative, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview.

The Sentry was launched earlier this month by co-founders by George Clooney and John Prendergast of the Enough Project, a Washington, DC organization that works to prevent genocide and war crimes. Both have long been engaged in combating resource wars and ethnic conflict across Africa. The Sentry’s aims are an outgrowth of those efforts, but it will take a different approach.

“Our idea is that using these different tools — whether it’s sanctions enforcement or civil assets forfeiture or criminal cases for pillage as a war crime or anti-money laundering or even basic bank or mail fraud — that there are opportunities the nodes of the system where people are making a profit off of the conflicts that are ongoing in parts of eastern and central Africa,” Kumar explained.

This sort of approach has already helped to quell conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of four countries that The Sentry will be working in.

Mineral mining used to put $185 million a year in to the hands of the armed groups that killed and raped civilians during a five-year long war, which claimed up to six million lives. They’re earning a lot less now, due, in part, to American financial regulations.

Through a provision in the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act, companies were forced to publish information about their supply chains. Wary of public scrutiny for financing conflict with their purchase of minerals, many of them sought alternative suppliers. Their search for more ethical resources forced the Congo to develop a validation process to evaluate minerals as conflict-free. That push caused armed groups to lose control of two-thirds of the mines they held over the course of the last four years.

While the shift has been monumental, real challenges remain. Sophia Pickles of Global Witness, an organization that works to foster transparency across various natural resource industries, said that the issue is far from resolved. “[D]espite positive steps, there are still real challenges to overcome in [the] Congo, not least the illegal involvement of high-ranking members of the Congolese army in the minerals trade.”

According to the United Nations, some $400 million worth of gold was illegally smuggled out of the Congo in 2013. Much of the money that came from those sales went to militant groups engaged in an ongoing armed conflict in the country. According to the report, 20 million people in the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya are dependent on illegally mined minerals as their sole source of income.

It’s hard to say where the buck stops in countries like the Congo where conflict has raged for decades. A recent study by the African Review found that many African heads of state earn salaries that are hundreds of times higher than the average income in their countries, in part because of their hold over key industries.

The massive network of people — including some in high places — who profit from resources that might be mined by armed groups makes regulation efforts especially challenging. Since gold or tungsten extracted from mines controlled by armed groups looks no different from minerals from more credible suppliers, it can be difficult to keep them from getting mixed in with conflict-free resources. That’s why The Sentry will focus in on what Akshaya Kumar called “the missing middle” – or all of the many transactions between when a mineral is mined and when it enters global markets.

“A big part of that is to push for better audits of supply chains and to push for companies to really know their customers,” she said. “Whether it be jewelers who buy diamonds and gold or electronics manufactured who use tungsten and tantalum to search their supply chains and to make sure they’re only buying from credible, audited, conflict-free sources and suppliers.”

That work is essential to The Sentry’s mission. As co-founder George Clooney said, “Real leverage for peace and human rights will come when the people who benefit from war will pay a price for the damage they cause.”