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Human Trafficking Center

Sanctions against the DRC Won’t End Slavery

Human Trafficking Coltan Congo


Mar 2016



By Catie Fowler, Research Assistant

The Issue

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a nation beset by civil conflict.  A multitude of armed groups vie for power in the eastern Kivu provinces of the country, waging guerilla-style warfare against the Congolese military and against each other.  These groups control the region, using their power to intimidate and suppress the Congolese people into slavery.  Women and children are abducted into lives as sex slaves or child soldiers or forced to work without pay in illegal mines to export a variety of precious minerals that help fund ongoing violence.

In the meantime, the most well-intentioned of US policies would only serve to harm the Congolese population.  Would-be sanctions imposed by the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and Child Soldiers Protection Act (CSPA) threaten to remove aid to the country if it cannot improve its national human rights policy. However, lack of infrastructure is one of the primary factors preventing the DRC from improving on its human rights record.

Continued trafficking is fueled by two factors—ongoing ethnic violence and the illicit mineral trade.  Without an end to the conflict and a way to ensure that the DRC’s vast wealth of natural resource exports (approximately $139 billion per year) go to benefit the Congolese people, there is little chance of putting a stop to forced labor and other forms of slavery in the region.  Instead of sanctions, the DRC needs development and stability.


The resource curse of the DRC has been ongoing since 1885, at the dawn of Belgian colonial rule under King Leopold, during which 10,000,000 Congolese were enslaved, tortured, or murdered over rubber exports for the burgeoning auto industry.  Since then, the DRC has been embroiled in two major conflicts: the First Congo War and the Second Congo War.  In both, fighting was internal and external as rebel factions and outside nation states vied for control over the DRC’s resource-rich Eastern provinces.  The second war was later named “The Great War of Africa” due to the immense amount of outside involvement in the fighting.  Although the Second Congo War formally ended over a decade ago, conditions of violence, informal warfare, and slavery remain very much the same today.

US Policy

The US has passed a series of policies since 2000 in order to discourage human trafficking worldwide.  The US Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and Child Soldiers Protection Act (CSPA) attempt to halt various forms of slavery by sanctioning countries that do not adequately comply with their standards for trafficking prevention.  More specific to the DRC, Section 1502 of the US Dodd-Frank Act attempts to keep the DRC’s illicit mineral trade from funding ongoing conflict by encouraging US companies to be more transparent in their sourcing of minerals.  In some ways, this legislation has been a success.  Investigations of the Congo’s mines by multi-stakeholder teams have found a reduction in violence.  However, the law also has the potential to hurt the DRC if not implemented properly.  Rather than remaining in the DRC and establishing legitimate trade, companies might find it easier to move their business elsewhere.  In fact, when the legislation first passed, China bought 80% of the coltan reserves in Brazil, a preemptive move to ensure they would no longer need to rely on the DRC.

Well-intentioned though these laws might be, they attempt to incentivize the DRC to make improvements through fear, rather than ensuring that such improvements are possible.  In fact, it seems that sanctions would harm the DRC instead of helping it.  As an already indebted and impoverished country, the DRC lacks the power to enforce the model for human rights set by the TVPA and CSPA.  In 2012, President Obama recognized this by partially waiving the sanctions the CSPA would have required against the Congolese military.  It was not the first time for President Obama to waive such sanctions; he has also waived the CSPA sanctions for Libya, South Sudan, and Yemen in their entirety, as well as the TVPA sanctions for a multitude of others.


Instead of placing sanctions on the DRC, the US should take a development-centered approach.  The construction of more and improved roads would eliminate the leading cause of death in the DRC, malaria, due to poor healthcare access.  It would force armed groups into the open and allow better monitoring of the eastern part of the country.  In that same vein, the Dodd-Frank Act should include provisions for enforcement and that incentivize US companies to invest in mining regions in which they are already doing business.  This would ensure that illicit mines in the DRC could be transformed into legal businesses, bringing profits into the country and to the civilian population.

Which strategies show promise for improving human rights?  Aid instead of  punishment and better labor protections instead of boycotts.  The US should examine its policy of sanctioning and determine not only if it is the best policy for the DRC, but the best policy to end trafficking across the globe.

Image via Responsible Sourcing Network. Use of their image does not indicate endorsement of the views expressed in this blog.

About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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2 Responses to “Sanctions against the DRC Won’t End Slavery”

  1. Florence Boivin Roumestan

    President of Justice &Equity,, and living in this region since 15 years, I can tell you that you proposals to fight human trafficking in DRC see not enough! Begin by the beginning and find a way to improve the very bad situation of the police and the army in this country! They have no trainings at all and no means at all in this field, and a police officer earns 50$ per month! So many times I use my private jeep to transport police officers when we raid a place! Again today I gave air time for them to call during their investigations. America has helped a lot Rwanda, its institutions, police and army, where I lived during years. We need all of that in DRC.

    • Catie Fowler

      I certainly agree with much of what you are saying. Solutions to the overarching issue of trafficking in the DRC will need to come from more than one place. Certainly police should receive compensation and training to identify and protect victims of trafficking. There should also be shelter and support for those victims and an economy into which former victims of trafficking can hope to find employment. Sanctioning the country only means that these solutions become less possible and it is an unfortunately common threat. As someone who has lived in Rwanda, you might have seen that Rwanda has received similar sanctions of its own due to allegations of its support of rebel groups in the DRC that utilize child soldiers. The focus of this piece was merely on the impact of one specific US policy on this very broad issue. It is only one small piece of the pie, but it may help alleviate some of the economic challenges preventing the DRC from being able to address this issue effectively.

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