Is Your Cell Phone Funding Human Rights Abuses?

January 25, 2012

Workers dig at a gold mine in north eastern Congo. (Photo LIONEL HEALING/AFP/Getty Images)

From jewelry to cell phones, global consumers are inadvertently supporting a trade in minerals that perpetuates horrific human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and surrounding areas.  But we have a chance to break this link – by using transparency as a tool to promote and protect human rights.

Last year, President Obama signed into law the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.  Within this landmark law is a provision that addresses an ongoing activity at the intersection of business and human rights: the trade and mining of minerals from Africa.

Section 1502, or the Conflict Minerals provision, essentially requires publicly traded companies to disclose to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) whether their products contain minerals from Congo or adjacent countries. If so, these companies must explain the actions taken to trace the origin of the minerals and whether they come from mines or trading routes that help fund armed conflict.

Profits that fund armed groups from the conflict minerals trade contributes to a dire humanitarian situation in the east of Congo.  Human rights abuses, including gender-based violence such as rape and sexual slavery, have reached catastrophic proportions.

The SEC was initially expected to release a final rule giving life to the provision in April 2011, but to date, the SEC has failed to issue a final rule.  Failure to release a strong final rule soon harms companies, taxpayers, investors, and the Congolese people by threatening to undermine progress on the ground in preventing minerals from fueling conflict.

Delays create uncertainty and remove incentives for companies to develop due diligence processes and systems that can enable them to source minerals from the DRC responsibly. Moreover, US taxpayers continue to pay US $500-600 million per year in aid and peacekeeping costs aimed at making Congo a more stable place. For investors, the right to know what activities their investments or purchases may be directly or indirectly supporting is compromised.

But most critically, for the Congolese people, further delays mean armed groups can continue to prey upon and draw financing from the minerals sector, while fueling instability and committing human rights abuses against civilian populations.

This is not what Congress intended by enacting Section 1502, and the SEC and the Chairman and Commissioners risk undermining the intent behind the law by delaying the issuance of the final rule and by weakening its scope.

Take action to urge the SEC to issue strong and final rules on conflict minerals.  It’s time we start asking companies who we invest in or purchase from to do more to ensure that the minerals in our products are not contributing to human rights abuses.  Tell the SEC Commissioners and the Chairman to not cave to industry pressure, and to issue rules that give life to the intent behind the statute.