The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) accuses the Apple group of using “illegally exploited” minerals in its products which allegedly come “from Congolese mines” in which “many human rights are violated”, according to documents consulted by the Agence France-Presse (AFP). According to the lawyers mandated by the DRC, these minerals would then be “transported out of the DRC, and in particular to Rwanda, where they would be laundered”.

“It appears from the file” submitted by the DRC “that the Apple company uses strategic minerals purchased in Rwanda in its products,” assert the lawyers mandated to draft a formal notice, a summons before the initiation of legal proceedings.

“Rwanda is a central player in the illegal exploitation of minerals, and in particular the exploitation of tin and tantalum in the DRC,” say the lawyers. “After their illegal extraction, these minerals are smuggled into Rwanda, where they are integrated into global supply chains,” the notice states. “These disputed minerals come largely from Congolese mines in which numerous human rights are violated,” the lawyers continue.

This formal notice was sent this week to the two Apple subsidiaries in France by French lawyers William Bourdon and Vincent Brengarth. A letter was also sent to the American parent company of the important tech group, which notably markets the iPhone and Mac computers.

“Blood Ores”

The subsoil of the DRC is full of minerals, the country being the world’s leading producer of cobalt and the leading African producer of copper. According to a report by the NGO The Enough Project, published in 2015, “these mineral sites often appear to be controlled by armed groups who force, through violence and terror, civilians to work there and transport these minerals. Children are also forced to work in these mines.”

The government in Kinshasa accuses Rwanda of wanting to take control of the resources, particularly mining, in the east of the country, one of the reasons why, according to it, Kigali supports the rebellion of the March 23 Movement (M23). , on the offensive for more than two years in the province of North Kivu. The M23 currently controls large parts of North Kivu and surrounds the provincial capital, Goma.

This formal notice from Apple is explained, according to these lawyers, “by the extraordinary seriousness of the situation in eastern DRC, which is a source of very serious damage to the local population and the Congolese state.”

“The liability of Apple, and beyond that of large high-tech manufacturers, when they use blood minerals, has long remained a black box,” lawyers William Bourdon, lawyer at Paris office, and Robert Amsterdam, lawyer at the London bar.

The lawyers consider “notoriously insufficient” the “various commitments and precautions taken” by Apple, “either on its own initiative or in application of the law with regard to the use of minerals purchased in Rwanda”. “The DRC intends to moralize the rare mineral extraction sector, especially when they are extracted at the cost of committing the most serious crimes and sometimes for the benefit of those who commit them,” they argue.

“Conflict-free” minerals

“Apple seems to rely primarily on the vigilance of its suppliers and their commitment to respecting Apple’s code of conduct, as well as external audits carried out on the activity of these suppliers. However, both these suppliers and the auditing companies appear to rely on Itsci [Tin Supply Chain Initiative] certification, the serious and numerous dysfunctions of which have been demonstrated,” states the formal notice.

The Itsci program is one of the main mechanisms established more than ten years ago to ensure a supply of “conflict-free” and responsibly extracted minerals in the DRC, according to the British NGO Global Witness. In April 2022, this NGO accused this program of contributing in the DRC, on the contrary, to the laundering of minerals linked to conflicts, child labor, or resulting from trafficking and smuggling.

To source tin, tantalum and tungsten (the so-called “3T” metals, widely used in electronic equipment), large companies, such as Apple, Intel, Samsung, Nokia, Motorola or Tesla, rely on this “failing” mechanism, deplored the NGO, which revealed that, “in a certain mining area” in eastern DRC, “90% of the minerals that entered the program during the first quarter of 2021 did not come from validated mines”.

Apple’s formal notice from the DRC is accompanied by a list of questions relating to “3T minerals used in Apple products”. The lawyers have ordered Apple to respond “within three weeks”. “All legal options are now on the table,” they added.

Contacted by AFP, Apple referred to elements published in its 2023 annual report concerning conflict minerals. This mentioned having “found no reasonable basis to conclude that any of the 3TG (tin, tungsten, tantalum, gold) smelters or refineries determined to be part of [its] supply chain as of December 31, 2023 [ had] directly or indirectly financed or benefited armed groups in the DRC or in a neighboring country”.