Belgian commission hears testimony on coltan trade

The commission of enquiry of the Belgian Senate on the exploitation of mineral resources of Democratic Republic Congo (DRC) on Friday heard the testimony of two researchers from the International Peace Information Service (IPIS), based in Antwerp, Belgium, on coltan trade in eastern DRC.

The commission was set up on 23 November 2001 for an initial period of six months, renewable once. It was established in the wake of the publication of reports by the UN panel on the illegal exploitation of Congo's resources, due to pressure from the public and European nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).

It aims to investigate the alleged involvement of Belgian and non-Belgian companies in the illegal trade of natural resources of the DRC, and to explore measures to halt such activities from fuelling war in the region.

In the first part of the hearing, the two researchers outlined the result of their study on European companies trading and transporting coltan originating from territories of South Kivu, controlled by the Goma-based Rassemblement congolais pour la democratie (RCD-Goma) and Rwanda, published in January 2002.

That report, "Supporting the war economy in the DRC: European companies and the coltan trade" recommended that a temporary embargo be imposed on coltan and other natural resources originating from rebel-held territories of the DRC and countries involved in the war.

The experts told the Belgian inquiry of a month-long field trip in the trading and mining centres of the territories controlled by RCD-Mouvement de liberation (RDC-ML) and Uganda, which they had just completed.

They also showed a picture of a coltan trader's child deformed due to the radioactivity of the coltan stocked at home.

In their concluding remarks, the experts said that the armed groups' primary objective both in Rwandan- and Ugandan-controlled territories was control of mineral-rich areas. They said that both RCD-Goma and RCD-ML imposed a huge burden on the local population through taxing people without offering any return in terms of health care, education or infrastructure.

They also noted that the Rwandan and Ugandan military, or foreign companies, controlled many businesses involved in the coltan trade, though these were often registered as Congolese companies to disguise them.

Rwanda and Uganda have consistently denied that their involvement in the DRC war was in order to exploit the country's vast natural and mineral resources.

The experts added that some actors involved in the mineral trade were also important players in the arms trade - in particular, through links to the alleged arms trafficker Viktor Bout.

A de facto embargo on coltan from eastern Congo had been observed by many western companies since the publication of the report of the United Nations panel on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the DRC, they said.

However, some companies have continued to maintain contacts with local traders through intermediaries operating as individuals, not in the name of the company they are working for, the experts added. Six of the 15 members of the commission were present at the hearing.