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A new commitment towards international norms in the Congolese extractive sector

The Voluntary Principles Initiative votes to accept the Democratic Republic of Congo as an Engaged Government Member

On 26 May 2023, the plenary of the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights Initiative (VPI) voted to admit the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as an engaged government member. This is the culmination of a three-year process of awareness raising, capacity building, and outreach with government agencies and other stakeholders on security and human rights, with DCAF engagement. Signifying a strong commitment to integrating international norms for a more human rights-compliant extractive sector, this is a symbol of the trust patiently built together among the government, business actors and human rights defenders.

How did this process begin? In late 2019, Switzerland approached the DRC Ministry of Human Rights and Ministry of Mines during its chairmanship of the VPI. The goal was to discuss the progress made on implementation of the Voluntary Principles (VPs) and to discuss the potential for government membership. In the years prior, Congolese civil society organizations (CSOs), with the support of DCAF, established platforms of dialogue between local stakeholders in eastern and southern Congo to address recurring challenges involving security that negatively impact local communities and company employees. These in-country Working Groups brought many actors around the table and enabled government agencies, communities, companies, and security providers to jointly address challenges in the industry. In early 2020, thanks to the reflection facilitated by Switzerland, the DRC Council of Ministries designated the Ministry of Human Rights to initiate the process towards VPI membership. The message had been heard.

From 2020-2023, together with CSO partners the Observatoire Gouvernance et Paix in South Kivu and Justicia in ex-Katanga, who lead the in-country VPs Working Groups, DCAF became a technical partner to the government and supported consultations and research. Through elections and changes in the government, the partners accompanied the Human Rights Ministry to identify the right focal points from the Ministries of Mines and Petroleum in order to reinforce the Congolese ownership of the process. The partners also supported the government in developing an application file, in strong coordination with existing civil society networks, VPI member companies, the Chamber of Mines, and international embassies. This journey ensured that the government connected the process to realities on the ground, bringing the dialogues on VPI membership from Kinshasa to extractive provinces. The government integrated lessons-learned from company efforts in human rights due diligence: where they succeeded, where they failed, and addressed the constant issue of insufficient stakeholder engagement. The government submitted the application in March 2022, upon which it was discussed within the government, civil society, and corporate pillars. It was then discussed by the VPI Steering Committee and finally accepted by the plenary in May 2023. The VPI as a global initiative is gaining a major producer country to its 52 members.

This brings us to the current moment. The DRC is a country in the crossroads of the “just energy transition” facing extremely high global demands for critical minerals at the same time as challenges with conflict, human rights protection, socio-economic development, and weak governance. By joining the VPI, the DRC is committing to work with others to improve security and human rights in a major industrial sector that will only grow and develop. What comes next ?

With continuous support by Switzerland and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the DRC government focal points, DCAF, and our civil society partners will continue to work with company stakeholders to gather national expectations, capitalize on current efforts and good practices, and elaborate a step-by-step plan that can lift the conditions in which strategic minerals are extracted and enter into the value chain. Some of the main corporate actors in DRC are also members of the VPI and understand the business case for the VPs. Moreover, the DRC’s vibrant and committed civil society and dedicated human rights defenders propel the spirit of partnership. Despite numerous governance challenges, the only way to forward is together.

Photo: Civil society consultation on DRC VPI membership, 2022. Photo by DCAF.