LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Prosecuting commanders and kingpins of militant groups for trafficking natural resources in conflict zones could help end the world's worst resource-driven violence, according to a report.
Despite widespread resource-driven conflict, individuals and companies are rarely prosecuted for the war crime of pillage, which is punishable at the International Criminal Court (ICC), said the Enough Project, a policy group fighting to prevent genocide and atrocities.
The pillaging of minerals was particularly destabilizing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it said, placing civilians under threat of violence and providing lucrative incomes to rebels, Congolese army factions, and businesses.
Lawyers in Congo said identifying ownership of natural resources, showing links between those accused of pillage and the derived wealth, and proving that armed conflict facilitated theft were major challenges to putting forward a strong case.
The report said prosecutions could help reduce incomes for perpetrators of atrocities, combat resource exploitation, and end the impunity that enables illegal financial networks to thrive in conflict zones and allows other crimes to continue.
"This is armed robbery on a grand scale, and often serves as both the purpose of perpetrators' atrocity crimes as well as the funding that sustains them," said Holly Dranginis, Enough Project's policy analyst who wrote the report.
"Prosecuting the most powerful actors... will expose unusual, essential alliances and restore rule of law in areas normally governed by the rule of the gun."
While theft may appear victimless relative to other war crimes, pillaging of minerals in Congo is closely linked to atrocities, including mass murder, rape and child labor, the report said.
The report said theft in eastern Congo often spans multiple countries and involves indicted war criminals, militias, and government officials, as well as corporations and banks outside of war zones which benefit from theft and money laundering.
Policymakers and non-governmental organizations worldwide are working to cut off funding to armed groups in Congo, it said, and U.N. and U.S. sanctions regimes address illegal natural resource exploitation linked to such groups.
A number of companies are working to reduce the global demand for untraceable minerals, which has decreased income to armed groups and stimulated more formal minerals markets, it said.
The group urged ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to revive the court's financial crimes unit and expand investigations in Congo, the Central African Republic, and Sudan to cover natural resource pillage.
Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, editing by Alisa Tang.