Tracing the Source of ‘Conflict Minerals’

From 1998 through 2002, my country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, endured a devastating civil war. The cease-fire that was supposed to end the fighting was purely nominal. Violence persisted, particularly in the east, and remains a constant feature of life here. With over five million dead, the conflict has become the most lethal struggle since World War II.

Since the cease-fire, rebel groups operating in Congo have treated women’s bodies as a battlefield, using sexual violence as a weapon. The Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, which I founded in 1999, has provided care to an estimated 40,000 rape victims; more arrive every day. My patients have been scarred physically and psychologically. As a surgeon, I do what I can to heal their bodies and minds.

The dimensions of this conflict are international. Some of Congo’s rebel groups, many of which originated in or have close links with neighboring countries, rely on the global sale of our nation’s minerals, including gold, tantalum, tin and tungsten. Since at least 2001, the trade in these and other so-called conflict minerals, used to power the world’s electronic devices, has played a massive role in sustaining these criminal networks. Between 2013 and 2014, the International Peace Information Service investigated over a thousand artisanal mines in eastern Congo; in 54 percent of these, they reported the involvement of at least one armed group.

Tracing the Source of

Cleaning up the industry, on which tens of thousands of legitimate miners in Congo depend, is vital if there is any hope of restoring peace. Governments have taken some initial steps to achieve this goal. But a report released Wednesday by Global Witness and Amnesty International makes clear that much remains to be done to ensure that businesses don’t profit from mineral sales that fund violence.

The United States took a positive step in 2010, introducing legislation to compel listed companies that use tantalum, tin, gold or tungsten in their production or products to investigate their supply chains. The regulations, which were adopted in 2012, require these companies to submit annual findings to the Securities and Exchange Commission, starting in 2014, and publish their reports online.

Some corporations have made commendable efforts, sending teams to visit the mines and smelters where their minerals are extracted and processed, and acting on the results. Since 2010, Apple has endeavored to map its supply chain and has reported an increase in the number of conflict-free smelters it uses. Electronics companies like Intel and Hewlett Packard, facing growing consumer pressure, have also taken steps to identify the sources of their minerals. Last year, Intel announced that all of its microprocessors would be produced using conflict-free minerals. But others have done the opposite, hiding behind industry groups like the National Association of Manufacturers and the United States Chamber of Commerce to challenge the law in court.

Last year, over a thousand companies filed their first minerals reports with the S.E.C. Now Global Witness and Amnesty International have published an analysis of about 100 of these documents, submitted by many of America’s biggest corporations. The results are sobering. Of their sample, 85 percent had not contacted or attempted to contact the smelters or refiners that processed their minerals. Forty-one percent could not show that they had a policy to identify risks in their supply chain. Only 16 percent could indicate what country their minerals came from. The results reveal that most companies are unaware of whether or not their products contain minerals that have been sold to fund violence.

This is unacceptable. When the next round of reports is filed this year, investors and consumers should be able to see verifiable improvement.

Businesses that don’t comply with this legislation must receive adequate punishment. The S.E.C. has the authority to sanction companies that fail to file minerals reports, or file false or misleading documents. In practice, however, S.E.C. action would likely require pressure from investors; this is a step each one of us can take. An executive order passed in July could also be invoked to penalize individuals or companies that support Congo’s armed groups “through the illicit trade in natural resources.”

Encouragingly, more governments seem to appreciate the need to hold businesses to account. In October, a government-affiliated mining industry group in China introduced guidelines for its companies operating overseas, including measures to promote due diligence throughout the supply chain.

The European Union is also developing regulations. Recently proposed legislation would require European Union smelters and refiners to ensure the responsible importing of tantalum, tin, gold and tungsten. Unfortunately, transparency would remain voluntary throughout the rest of the supply chain. When the European Parliament votes on the proposal next month, a commitment to responsible sourcing must be made mandatory for all businesses that could potentially bring conflict minerals into Europe. If not, the legislation now under discussion risks undermining global attempts to clean up the trade.

A conflict-free minerals industry would greatly benefit the people of Congo and contribute to ending the unspeakable violence they have endured for years. The legislative tools to help make this a reality are available to international policy makers, but they must be enacted and enforced. Companies must conduct honest, rigorous investigations of their supply chains, publicly report their findings, and act on the results to ensure that their money — and ours — no longer ends up in the hands of violent rebels. If they are unwilling to do so, governments must compel them to action.

Denis Mukwege is the founder and medical director of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, and founder of the Panzi Foundation USA.

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