New Law Aims To Shine Light On Conflict Metals

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Delly Mawazo Sesete wants American consumers to know what is in their smart phones, computers and other electronics and where U.S. companies like Apple are getting those rare metals.

Sesete says that, without knowing, consumers in the U.S. could be fueling conflicts in Eastern Congo. The human rights activist is from a remote part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where armed groups are wreaking havoc and get much of their funding from mining rare metals.

"All the money that armed groups get from that exploitation is used to buy weapons and other ammunition so that they may cause injury to people ... men slaughtered, pillage, rape of women and young girls," he says.

Some of Sesete's own family members have been forced from their homes in mineral rich areas of eastern Congo. The country's riches, he says, have been a curse.

"These minerals are coming from the most conflicted area in the world, where women are raped by the thousands, where men are held in slavery and humiliated by having their wives raped in front of them," says Rep. Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington state. "All of this mayhem is the basis for the mining of tin, tungsten and tantalum, which are elements that are essential for the creation of a Blackberry."

The metals are also components for many other consumer electronics. McDermott is hopeful that a new U.S. law could help this situation. Buried deep in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is a provision that requires U.S. companies to disclose the source of their minerals. Proponents, like McDermott, say it is past time for the Securities and Exchange Commission to tell companies what they must do to comply with that law.

"The companies, they are not opposed, they just want to know what the rules are so they can follow them, so they can say our product is acceptable," he says.

Those rules have been slow in coming, says Daniel Kaufmann of the Brookings Institution. He co-sponsored a conference on this issue in Washington and says there has been debates about the price U.S. companies are facing to implement any new regulations.

"There is a tendency to exaggerate how costly it is to disclose," Kaufmann says. "In any case, a modern company, a large company, has to gather all this information if it is well managed."

There's nothing in the law that says companies can't use conflict minerals; they just have to disclose the source of their rare metals. Kaufman doesn't expect quick changes on the ground and points out that Congo has many other problems — as the recent disputed elections highlighted. But he says in this one area, the U.S. can lead by example.

"On the one hand, it is the case that it is important that it is not just one piece of legislation, and only one country doing it and affecting only one set of companies," he says, "but on the other, lets not underestimate the dynamic that is set by taking the lead."

Kaufman says the European Union is working on similar rule, as is South Korea. Activists hope China can be convinced as well to help clean up the Congo's mining sector.

The SEC rules are expected soon, but there's no word on exactly when they will come out.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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