Ending Grand Theft on a Global Scale: Prosecuting the War Crime of Pillage
Underneath the forests, hills, and rivers of the Democratic Republic of the Congo lie billions of dollars in mineral wealth, with millions of that being traded illegally through sophisticated criminal networks. Every year, those resources are stolen and traded for lucrative profits by some of the world’s worst criminals and their allies, including rebel leaders and state army commanders. This large-scale theft enables violent war crimes and crimes against humanity, and it constitutes a war crime in its own right, called pillage. Yet, it’s not being prosecuted by courts in the Congo or on the world stage. Notorious groups like the FDLR, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and Seleka have been linked to natural resource theft in the central African region. They steal and trade elephant ivory, charcoal, gold, and other minerals to buy guns, munitions, and supplies. Without prosecutions, warlords, middlemen, and corporations cashing in on Congo’s stolen resources have been free to operate and profit in a climate of impunity.
Pillage is a crime that crosses borders and involves diverse demographics, connecting some of the world’s most vulnerable populations with corporations and top government officials. It begins with battle: armed groups terrorize and slaughter civilians, often in order to secure mines to fuel their armies. The militias trade minerals in black and grey markets through middlemen, intermediaries, and even governments before those materials reach the global market, in the form of consumer electronics and jewlery. Many of these enablers make tremendous profits by playing their part in the trade, and turn a blind eye to its violent origins.
One reason pillage is a tough crime to prosecute is that the beneficiaries are often powerful and wealthy, with the ability to influence, hesitant to draw attention to the criminal nature of pillage and the violence associated. Some of these enablers are so remote from the human cost of their profit that they escape legal liability for their complicity.
Market pressure, consumer awareness, and regulatory reforms have gone a long way in helping curb the illegal trade in conflict minerals and the flow of money to armed groups. But these measures alone can’t end and prevent pillage, and they don’t address all the concerns of affected communities.
Stopping pillage and restoring dignity and wealth to Congo’s people requires a concerted effort to provide justice. Trials involve in-depth investigations that will reveal crucial information about the mechanics of the trade, and how it underpins and is supported by other, more violent crimes, like child soldiering and torture. Advancing cases will require the commitment of the Congolese government, the UN peacekeeping mission, the International Criminal Court, and national courts in Europe, Asia, the US and elsewhere with power to prosecute smugglers and companies along the supply chain. It also requires better protection for survivors and lawyers in Congo advocating for cases to move forward.
Prosecuting pillage will give survivors the chance to testify, shedding light on how the war crime impacts their livelihoods and how inseparable it is with violent crimes like rape and forced labor. Trials will give affected communities the chance to see individual accountability unfold in a public forum, whether in their own countries or international courts. Finally, pillage cases could also lead to the lawful seizure of stolen assets for victim reparations. If the international community moves forward on prosecuting pillage, it can change the calculus for armed actors and their facilitators – telling armed commanders and their enablers that the cost of pillage is greater than the profit it brings.
Photo: M23 rebel fighters north of Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo (2012) AP Photo/Jerome Delay