Congress Takes On DRC’s Conflict Minerals

Stimson Spotlight

Congress Takes On DRC’s Conflict Minerals

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act includes a provision that aims to reduce the use of conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of Congo in electronic products. This is an important step for creating transparency in the mineral supply chain, but effective implementation of the legislation faces significant challenges. 

By Mark Yarnell - In this pre-election period, while Congress is focused on domestic economic issues, members of the House and Senate recently passed landmark legislation that seeks to mitigate the ongoing, devastating conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, signed into law by President Obama on July 21st, 2010, includes a provision (Section 1502) that aims to reduce the use of conflict minerals - originating in the DRC or in one of its neighbors - in electronic devices. Many mines and export routes in eastern DRC are controlled by competing militant groups who use the illicit trade of minerals to finance their war chests.  Proponents of Section 1502 hope that by inducing companies to use "conflict free" minerals, funding for violent armed groups will be restricted and fighting in eastern Congo will be reduced.  This is an important step for creating transparency in the mineral supply chain, but effective implementation of the legislation faces significant challenges. 

Eastern DRC, where much of the fighting takes place, is particularly rich in mineral ores that contain tantalum, tungsten, and tin. Tantalum is used in capacitors that control the flow of electricity in products such as cell phones and laptops; tungsten is used to make cell phones vibrate; and tin is used as a solder on electronic circuit borders.  

The conflict mineral legislation requires US-listed companies that use tantalum, tungsten, tin, and/or gold in their products to report to the Security and Exchange Commission annually whether or not the minerals used are "conflict free."  These disclosures are to be posted on companies' web sites, following an independent audit.  Section 1502 also requires the Secretary of State to produce a conflict minerals map and for the State Department and USAID to submit to Congress a strategy "to address the linkages between human rights abuses, armed groups, mining of conflict minerals, and commercial products." 

From the reign of King Leopold II to Belgian colonization to President Mobutu Sese Seko, who ran the country as his personal fiefdom, Congo's history has been marred by devastating resource exploitation. In the beginning it was ivory, rubber and gold. And now tantalum, tungsten, and tin can be added to the list.  After the war that led to the fall of Mobutu in 1996, several of the invading countries - notably Rwanda and Uganda - secured access to mineral-rich areas in the eastern part of the country.  The Rwandan and Ugandan armies have retreated, though several armed actors and proxy militias remain. Now armed groups including Hutu militias, Rwandan influenced rebels, Mai Mai, and renegade Congolese army brigades fight over control of the mines.

Section 1502 plays a valuable role in highlighting the link between mineral extraction, the conflict in eastern DRC and the electronics that Americans use everyday.  While less forceful than some advocates desired, the legislation increases the likelihood that companies will be transparent about their sourcing and lays the groundwork for better-regulated mineral trade in Central Africa.  The mines in eastern DRC provide tens of millions of dollars in revenue to militant groups accused of war crimes and human rights abuses. If implemented effectively, Section 1502 can help squeeze the financing of these groups, and reduce their purchasing power for the tools of war.

There are several challenges, however, that may limit the success of the new law.

First, the new regulations will be particularly hard to enforce. Tracing the origins of, say, tantalum used in a cell phone, back through the supply chain is extremely difficult.  Minerals dug out of the ground in DRC are transferred to comptoirs (trading houses), exported through neighboring countries, and then shipped to smelters, likely in China, Malaysia, or Thailand.  In a region as unstable and ungoverned as eastern DRC, the prospect that papers will be forged and that minerals will continue to be smuggled across porous borders is high. 

Second, the scope of the legislation includes only companies that report to the Security and Exchange Commission. Even if US-listed entities stop sourcing from rebel-held mines in DRC, companies in China, Russia, India, or anywhere for that matter could step in to fill the gap.  To increase the impact of the law, the US could utilize diplomatic leverage to encourage others to follow its lead.  

Third, and most important, while competition over resources plays a significant role in perpetuating the DRC's brutal conflict, the country will never achieve lasting peace until it has a government and a security sector that is effective, accountable, and lawful.  Last month, perhaps in direct response to the US legislation, President Joseph Kabila temporarily banned all mining activities in the DRC's eastern provinces. Units of the Congolese soldiers who are attempting to enforce the ban, however, are engaged in the trade themselves; several thousand civilian miners are out of work; and the industry is likely to be pushed further underground. Moreover, wrestling control of the mines from rebel groups does little to address broader land rights-based conflicts that stem from population relocations by the colonial Belgians and subsequent wars and refugee movements.  

The DRC conflict mineral legislation faces significant challenges, and it is but one component of a multi-faceted effort to facilitate sustainable peace. It nonetheless represents a potential breakthrough in the effort to sever the link between the products we use here at home and violence that is occurring thousands of miles away. 

 


"Mai Mai" refers to highly localized militias, the majority of which formed to defend their land from outside invaders, particularly Rwanda. Their alliances have shifted over the course of the conflict, depending on local interests. 

H.R. 4173 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Section 1502 (2) (a).

Photo credit: Julien Harneis from Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Wikimedia Commons.