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Congo, 2019: Miners work at the entrance to a shaft at the Société Minière de Bisunzu (SMB) coltan mine near the town of Rubaya in the east of the country.

Congo, 2019: Miners work at the entrance to a shaft at the Société Minière de Bisunzu (SMB) coltan mine near the town of Rubaya in the east of the country.

Exploitive Mineral Extraction in the DRC Must Stop

blog Joint Futures 46, 15.02.2024

In its economic relations with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Germany should redouble its efforts to ensure that companies and private investors respect human rights, writes Gilbert Dhego in this Joint Futures blog.


My home country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is abundantly rich in minerals, particularly copper and cobalt. The exploitation and supply of these resources has become a major issue in global economics and geopolitics, attracting states, investors, and private companies from all over the globe, including Germany. This is because both minerals are essential for developments in modern technologies as well as the energy sector. Cobalt, for example, is a key element in the production of lithium batteries, which power a wide range of products, including electric vehicles and smartphones.

Unfortunately, foreign investors and private companies are not always adequately monitored by the Congolese state to ensure that their activities respect the rights of local Congolese communities. More than a decade after the Human Rights Council adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, cases of human rights abuses by mining companies continue to be reported in the DRC. There is great concern across local communities in eastern DRC that the situation will deteriorate further, noting the global rush for “green” minerals.

Examples of human rights violations related to mining

The example of Alphamine Bisie Mining (ABM, South Africa) is a case in point. The company is exploiting an enormous tin deposit in Walikale (North Kivu). It pays its legal royalties and taxes, but its social impact raises many questions: What benefits does it bring to local communities? How does it contribute to sustainable development, jobs, and economic value creation? What are the environmental and climatic impacts of the company’s activities? Since 2017, thousands of people have been displaced and deprived of their means of subsistence without any recourse. The Congolese government, with the help of its police and army, has assisted ABM in carrying out these evictions.

Another example is the case of Mukumbi, in the province of Lualaba (Kolwezi) in south-eastern DRC. It is near the Mutoshi mine, which is operated by Chemical of Africa SA (Chemaf), a subsidiary of Chemaf Resources Ltd. Local residents were forcibly evicted from their homes and fields by soldiers to make way for the expansion of copper and cobalt mining projects. Villagers who tried to stop them were beaten and abused. The village was completely destroyed on 7 November 2016 without any compensation. The land grabbing has gone hand in hand with water and soil pollution, the loss of biodiversity, and the irreparable destruction of the environment.

The dark side of foreign private investments

Although private investments in the mining sector can offer advantages, such as increased tax revenue, temporary job creation, and improved social infrastructure, in the DRC they are often made without adequately considering the rights of local communities, thereby failing to contribute to meaningful, inclusive economic and social development.

Foreign – also European – companies tend to ignore the rights of host communities, often with the support of Congolese authorities. Local and national political elites benefit greatly from the lack of transparency surrounding large-scale investments. As such, local communities tend to see any new mining contracts signed with multinational or private companies and investors as “predatory agreements”. Large protests can occur, such as the ones in Kitutu, a gold mining area in the Mwenga territory of South Kivu.

Small-scale and locally driven mining is generally viewed more positively, as it can contribute to poverty reduction and wealth creation. Artisanal mining offers opportunities for creating good jobs and local value chains; however, this requires formalisation to increase project transparency and reduce fraud.

Germany should promote victims’ access to justice

Germany is a major importer of minerals, and this trend is likely set to increase in the coming years. In 2022, Germany’s imports from the DRC amounted to USD 173 million, and the main commodity imported was copper. Given Germany’s recently established Act on Corporate Due Diligence in Supply Chains, working to replicate this law at the European and UN levels – with strong provisions to guarantee communities’ access to justice – would be a worthwhile next step. Local communities in the DRC would appreciate an inclusive and permanent framework to regulate the activities of transnational corporations and stop the widespread impunity for their human rights violations and environmental degradation.

The Guiding Principles already define the responsibilities of both states and companies in addressing human rights abuses related to business; however, they are not enough to ensure accountability on a meaningful scale. It is the legal responsibility of the state to prevent, investigate, punish, and remedy human rights abuses committed by companies. Unfortunately, this provision is rarely enforced in the DRC. ABM SA has violated with impunity the human rights of members of the COMIMPA and COCABI mining cooperatives, their dependants, and other residents of Bisie who were illegally evicted without a court order.

Germany should exert its diplomatic influence to confront these issues, use the Universal Periodic Review process, and help strengthen the work of regional mechanisms focussed on business and human rights cases (including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and sub-regional mechanisms such as the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region).

Private investments must be sustainable and reduce poverty

It is also critical that German investors and companies, or those linked to German industries, act in compliance with international human rights law. Private investments in the mining sector should always be subject to strict human rights and environmental due diligence obligations – meaning companies must systematically carry out prior impact studies to prevent and remedy any violations. Furthermore, any German-funded resource extraction projects should aim to have positive effects on local employment and value creation and be monitored accordingly. This can be achieved, for example, by helping to build local smelting and refining capacities through knowledge and technology transfer. Not least, German investments should be accompanied by increased efforts to provide basic education, tertiary education, and training opportunities for local communities in technical and commercial trades.

The exploitation of minerals in the DRC (and other African countries) cannot continue as before. Germany can play a positive role in facilitating better access to redress mechanisms, help transform business practices, and end socially and environmentally harmful extractivism. The overarching goal must be to discourage companies from committing human rights violations and refereeing their own actions. Let us all demand that corporations show more respect for human rights!

Gilbert Dhego is the Coordinator of the Diocesan Justice and Peace Commission, Caritas-Development, based in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo.

Responsibility for the content, opinions expressed and sources used in the articles and interviews lies with the respective authors.