Legal and Other Mechanisms to Prevent the Trade in Conflict Resources

Legal and Other Mechanisms to Prevent the Trade in Conflict Resources


Dossier: Resource Governance

Legal and Other Mechanisms to Prevent the Trade in Conflict Resources

April 10, 2008
Patrick Alley, Global Witness
Patrick Alley, Global Witness


It is now universally accepted that revenue from natural resources provided the means for war in countries such as Angola, Cambodia, Liberia and Sierra Leone. However, the international community has yet to address this problem effectively and systematically. The ability of parties to a conflict to exploit natural resources depends on their access to external markets. Take away this ability and they can no longer exacerbate or sustain conflict. For some examples of the horrors that have been committed by self-sustaining predatory armies backed by resource rents – such as forced recruitment of child soldiers, amputation of civilians’ limbs, summary executions, forced displacement and systematic rape – see the boxes below.

The international community needs to address resource-related conflicts in a way that tackles their particular character: in other words, by proactively addressing the trade that underlies the war, as well as the war itself. Global Witness believes that the international community, led by the Security Council, should put a comprehensive deterrent strategy in place to stop conflict resources from contributing to human rights violations and to remove them from international trade.

It has been recognised that a change in the nature of conflict has been partly characterised by the intentional targeting of civilians for gross and systematic human rights abuses and that civilians have become the majority of the casualties of war. (1) The international community’s response has been shaped by the recognition of its collective ‘responsibility to protect’ civilians from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity or serious violations of international humanitarian law, when states are unable or unwilling to provide such protection during conflict or grave crisis. This includes a more prominent role for the Security Council in conflict prevention. (2) Global Witness believes that the problem of conflict resources must be addressed as part of this emerging consensus on collective security.

The first step towards such a strategy is to clearly define what a conflict resource is. Indeed, Global Witness suggests that a conflict resource can be defined as one that should be removed from trade by the international community under their responsibility to protect civilians, either because the resource’s contribution to conflict situations where civilians’ human rights are abused and/or where individuals who derive income from natural resource extraction are breaking the laws of war by deliberately targeting civilians. We propose the following definition of conflict resources to invoke international action:

Conflict resources are natural resources whose systematic exploitation and trade in a context of conflict contribute to, benefit from or result in the commission of serious violations of human rights, violations of international humanitarian law or violations amounting to crimes under international law.

An agreed definition of conflict resources would help clarify the international community’s mandate to control the trade in natural resource-funded conflict where the laws of war are broken and human rights flouted. Such a definition would assist the international community in identifying cases where the extraction and trade of such resources is funding illegitimate activity.

An internationally agreed definition of conflict resources would also prove to be a crucial preventative tool, as it would help identify those situations in which natural resources – as potential conflict drivers – are likely to become conflict resources. Preventing natural-resource driven conflict in a more effective manner could also makes sense for post-conflict reconstruction and donor development strategies: a 2006 United Kingdom International Development Committee report on peace peacekeeping and post conflict reconstruction highlighted how the cost of a single conflict in a developing country almost equals the amount spent on global development aid in a year. (3)

It could also play an important role in actually deterring the trade in these resources, and consequent human rights abuses, by providing a clear behavioural red flag for businesses and individuals operating in conflict zones. It could also help companies implement more conflict-sensitive business activities, create a more secure operating environment, and ensure their role in the promotion and protection of human rights. (4)

Global Witness is not alone in calling for a definition of conflict resources. Between 2005 and 2006 the UK-led Commission for Africa report, the United Nations Development Programme’s 2005 Human Development report, the G8 Summit and the UK Government have all expressed the need for such a definition as part of a common international strategy to tackle and prevent conflict. In fact, the international community has already accepted the idea of defining a conflict resource to enable appropriate action. This was done for conflict diamonds through the Kimberley Process, a joint government, international diamond industry and civil society initiative to stem the flow of rough diamonds that are used by rebel movements to finance wars against legitimate governments. However, the definition adopted has proved limited (in that it only covers rebel groups, not governments, and only covers rough diamonds, not polished ones) and also it only applies to one resource. A common definition of conflict resources would eliminate the need for the current inconsistent and unsystematic piecemeal approach and it would prevent the need for a ‘Kimberley Process’ type initiative for every natural resource.

Case Studies

Conflict diamonds and timber in Liberia

The civil war in Liberia provides perhaps the starkest example of military-political entrepreneurship driven by natural resource exploitation, where warlord Charles Taylor financed his armed insurrection in 1989 by using revenue generated by the sale of timber and diamonds. After gaining power in 1997 he then proceeded to sponsor the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in its struggle in Sierra Leone, supplying arms and materiel in exchange for diamonds from the rich Sierra Leonean diamond fields.

  • During the conflict in Liberia more than a quarter of a million people died, half of them civilians, and during which 1.3 million people were displaced. 
  • In Sierra Leone, the RUF’s terror tactic was to chop off limbs of civilians to promote terror. Systematic rape was another tactic; it is estimated that half of all women in Sierra Leone were subjected to sexual violence during the war
  • The UN sanctions were not imposed on Liberian diamonds until March 2001, eight months after they were imposed on Sierra Leonean diamonds, and almost two years after Liberia became involved in funding the war in Sierra Leone.
  • As a result of sanctions, Taylor’s government shifted its focus to timber as a source of revenue. Again it took another two years after timber as a conflict resource was first debated by the Security Council, for the UN to impose sanctions on timber in 2003. One month after his funding was cut off, Charles Taylor moved into exile in Calabar, Nigeria.

Conflict resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The disintegration of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country the size of Western Europe, in the late 1990s is perhaps the best example of the problem where natural resources are bountiful and governance is poor. Economic motivations have played a key role in driving the conflict as armies and proxy militias of six different countries as well as those of the Congolese government and numerous rebel groups have plundered and looted the country’s vast natural resource wealth, such as coltan, gold, cassiterite, copper, cobalt, timber, diamonds and other precious stones. DRC’s neighbours, Rwanda and Uganda, have played an active role in the exploitation of the country’s natural resources throughout the conflict.

  • Four million people are estimated to have died as a result of the conflict, and more than two million people were displaced from their homes. According to the United Nations Development Programme this is the worst conflict and humanitarian disaster since the Second World War. Massacres of unarmed civilians, systematic rape and the use of child soldiers have been extensively reported. 
  • Although the UN Security council imposed an arms embargo on armed groups operating in eastern DRC, it has not taken strong action to address the role played by natural resources in driving the conflict. Despite broad international recognition of the links between natural resource exploitation and conflict in the DRC, detailed recommendations by the UN Panel of Experts’ reports on this issue have not been adequately followed up. 
  • In December 2005, the International Court of Justice ruled that by engaging in the illegal exploitation of natural resources and pillaging assets and wealth in the DRC, Uganda had violated several principles of international humanitarian law and human rights law and should pay compensation to the DRC.


(1) Security Council resolution, S/RES/1674 (2006).
(2) The international community’s commitment to the ‘responsibility to protect’ has been endorsed in a resolution adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005 and then in April 2006, for the first time, the a Security Council resolution on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, explicitly affirmed the responsibility of the international community to act to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity (S/RES?1674 (2006)
(3) International Development Committee, Conflict and Development: Peacekeeping and Post-Conflict Reconstruction, House of Commons, International Development Committee report
(4) Global Witness, November 2006, ‘The Sinews of War- Eliminating the Trade in Conflict Resources’, a briefing document by Global Witness.


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