Sunday, 21 January 2018

In conversation with Professor Kurt Mills of the University of Dundee

In conversation with Professor Kurt Mills of the University of Dundee (UoD); by Daniel Gilbert, UoD alumnus, Adviser to, and founding member, of DARN

This winter I had the pleasure and honour of interviewing Kurt Mills, Professor of International Relations and Human Rights at the University of Dundee ( in the UK, Editor of the journal Global Governance (, and the Principal Investigator of the Dundee Africa Research Network (  He is widely published ( on domestic and cross-border conflict issues, ethics, legal frameworks, contexts, dynamics and modalities.

Likewise, our discussion frequently crossed over between consideration of high principals, and the more prosaic realities at conflict prevention in nations such as Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).  The focus throughout was the link between conflict and competition for mining/ petroleum resources, e.g. for the cobalt, tantalum and niobium riches of the DRC, and Syria’s reserves of petroleum, roughly equal to both those of Argentina and Uganda (

With respect to the DRC, as of January 18th 2017, the ICC’s own website ( reports:
·      6 cases;
·      the conviction of both Thomas Lubanga Dyilo (former President of the Union des Patriotes Congolais) for offenses relating to child soldiers (, and Germain Katanga, an alleged commander of La Force de RĂ©sistance Patriotique de l'Ituri on the counts of war crimes and as an accessory to a murder (
·      1 ongoing trail;
·      7 warrants of arrest;
·      3 accused in custody;
·      1 suspect at large and 1 in custody; and
·      1 ongoing appeal.

The above is included by way of context.  As Professor Mills observes, this does not add up anywhere near to a comprehensive deterrence of jeopardy to actors in the DRC considering whether to contravene international law, e.g. through effecting yet more war crimes and/or crimes against humanity in that country.

On the plus side, encouragement was also taken from the previous conflict resolution success achieved in gold and diamond-rich Liberia, and the absence of violent conflict in good-governance Botswana, where 20% of GDP and 35% of fiscal revenue is provided by just one extractive industry ( once again, diamonds.

The below extracts selected highlights from our discussion, starting with the international principal and global political commitment of a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) populations, endorsed and adopted by United Nations (UN) member States in 2005 (

Daniel Gilbert (DG):
“Is the R2P principle genuinely prioritized in international conflict resolution and prevention where access to valuable mineral resources are also at stake?”

 Professor Kurt Mills (KM):
“The bigger question is whether R2P is actually prioritized at all.  To a very large extent, no it is not.  It is talked about periodically, and there is certainly a very large academic industry on the R2P but if you look at it in practice and in the way that the international community and the especially the UN Security Council draws upon the Responsibility to Protect it is relatively minimal.”


“Because the States who are meant to be implementing the Responsibility to Protect don’t really have an interest in doing so… an economic interest, a political interest a military interest… again, we see this in Darfur.  Darfur was perhaps the test case for responsibility to protect, and I think it’s a test case that failed – really quite substantially.

Nobody had an interest in it. I mean, China has an interest in supporting the Sudanese government, because it wanted access to the oil, Russia too I suppose, the US in particular and other Western countries had an interest in not pushing Sudan too hard because they wanted the North/ South conflict to be resolved, and nobody (external) wanted to use any military resources, nobody wanted to challenge the government.”

A contested term in the extractive industries is that of a “Resource Curse”, the hypothesis that the presence of natural resources actually results in worse outcomes for a country than would be predicted in their hypothetical absence.  For Professor Mills, the above rests on “complex dynamics”, but “a lot of it is down to governance”. 

KM thus contrasts:

“Botswana..  a positive case of where the resources have been of benefit to the country, and then you have countries like Angola where for example the money has been siphoned off and hasn’t really been of benefit to the vast majority.”

Moreover, the dynamics behind any manifestation of such a “Curse”, need not be wholly domestic, e.g. in the

“DRC, and that’s obviously ongoing, but back in the early stages of the conflict in say the mid to late 1990s you have about twelve different countries involved in the region and they weren’t there just because they wanted to support DRC or one of the other parties they were there to get access to the natural resources.”

One of the main research focal points for Professor Mills is the International Criminal Court (ICC), also the subject for his 2017 inaugural DARN lecture, however its work is not (yet) seen as for human rights transgressions in nations such as the DRC:

“Generally, we haven’t seen a great deterrence effect yet (from the) ICC.  

There is some anecdotal evidence (of such a deterrence effect), in the DRC for example, that some of the actors that have used child soldiers have pulled back from that or at least not been so blatant about doing so, but not more generally.”


The ICC has really only been in existence for 15 years as an operational cases, and there have only been a very few cases that have actually gone through the whole process, and it takes a very long time, and a lot of the people they have been trying to get they haven’t been able to get.  So, until this has become routinized, I don’t see much of a deterrence effect. (Also, NB) the threshold is so high to get the ICC involved.”
This lead to the question of how efficacious are/ can regional bodies such as the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), which body “emerged from the conflicts that had engulfed the region in 1990s, including the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the protracted conflict, instability and war in eastern parts of the DRC” (, or the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), in conflict prevention and resolution:

ECOWAS in particular has played some positive roles, especially in the Liberian intervention (1990s); I think that played a positive role there. I think that they are also constrained to a very large extent, and you see this with the African Union (AU) too, that frequently there is a reticence to be too critical of government actors in particular (as they are made up of governments) in trying to push them in a certain sort of way.  And you certainly saw this in Darfur when you had that AU peacekeeping mission, and then the AU/ UN sort of hybrid mission, a very great reluctance, on behalf of the peacekeepers, and their political masters, to push the Sudanese government, and they were basically at the whim of the Sudanese government, where they could go, when they could fly their helicopters, who they could bring in etc, so there’s significant limitations.

Finally, and looking beyond Africa to the Middle East:

“Considering Islamic Sates (IS) and its (past) control of oil resources in the Levant – to what degree did this extend their ability to fight their many opponents on the battlefield?

“I think its is key to the reach that they’ve been able to have, but I think with groups like IS, they will always find some sources to keep going. .. But I when we focus on IS we forget about how the conflict started and who was exactly responsible for most of the deaths, which is the Syrian government.”

“To what degree were the various Iraqi wars really about oil?”

“They were about oil to a certain extent..  I don’t think oil completely drove it because oil will still get to the market regardless of who controls it and the US would still get its oil.  I think 2003 especially wasn’t really about oil at all, it was about trying to remake the Middle East, which failed utterly and comprehensively.”

I would like to thank Professor Mills for agreeing to be interviewed for this blogpost.