Dirk Ormel: “A Congolese soldier ran towards me with an AK47”

Who: Dirk Ormel
Where: Leiden University, Law Department, the Netherlands
What: Could illegal mining in DRC be prosecuted by ICC?
How long: 4 month internship and research, 400 hours in the library studying and writing

By Anne Saenen
Published by Radio Netherlands Worldwide, Africa Desk

What attracted you to this topic?
Initially I wanted to research the Rwandan genocide ideology laws. I did an internship at the Dutch embassy in Rwanda and was very interested in Rwandan society. But I soon found out how sensitive the subject was. And, on top of that, I didn’t want the Dutch state to be associated with my research. So I reconsidered. I’d read some articles on illegal mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) which I found very interesting. Unlike the conflict in Rwanda, the entire conflict in DRC centres around the illegal trade of minerals. I wanted to know more about that.

Did you go to any of the illegal mining sites?
No, that was too dangerous. But I did arrange a meeting with two members of the MONUSCO peacekeeping force in DRC who had seen it all. I met them in Bukavu. They told me all about the illegal trade in minerals. They told me the illegally mined minerals are sent off with chartered flights to the Middle East and China where they are sold on to electronics companies. Although the Congolese government has made mining illegal the national army and other armed groups ignore this law. They intimidate local people with their guns and make them mine for them. In order to stop this trade I wanted to find out whether its possible to proscecute militia leaders for illegal mining, or pillaging, rather than to prosecute their subordinates for human rights violations. Because the exploitation of minerals is the core of the problem, not the small military guys intimidating locals.

Did you ever feel any of this intimidation yourself?
Yes, I did. Once I was walking on a crowded street in Bukavu. I saw some nice wall paintings in the street and I had my camera with me so I took some pictures. But I completely overlooked a coulple of soldiers sitting behind one of these walls. You’re not allowed to take pictures of armed forces, of course. Unfortunately, one of the guys spotted me and started running towards me with his AK47 pointed ahead. People had told me I could bribe soldiers for 500 dollars, but I didn’t have 500 dollars!

So you ran?
Well, no. I just turned around and walked into the crowd. I didn’t look over my shoulder pretending I didn’t see him. I was so scared! The picture wasn’t worth the experience.

Phew, fortunately you returned to the library safe and sound, and started writing…
Well, writing didn’t go that smooth at first. I’m quite easily distracted. That is why I picked a topic that was close to my heart. I hoped that would help me to get focussed. But it proved to be one of the difficulties of my research because I couldn’t stop reading. I was afraid I’d leave something out. And another consequence was that I had formed an opinion while I was in Rwanda and Congo. I was prejudiced when I came back and I wanted to prove my point.

What is your point?
That illegal trade of minerals in East Congo could and should be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Does the ICC know about your conviction?
I hope so. I sent my thesis to one of the advisers of Luis Moreno Ocampo, the head of the ICC.

Why didn’t you send it to him personally?
Actually…why didn’t I? You got me on to something.

Read more on Dirk Ormel’s thesis

More about the Africa Thesis Award 2011