Tin, Tantalum and Tungsten: The New Blood Diamonds

Two upcoming Senate bills could have a big impact on the Democratic Republic of Congo, by exposing how its 10-year conflict is being funded.

When Hillary Clinton visited the Democratic Republic of Congo this week, she called attention to the exploitation of the country's vast natural resources to fund its bloody ten-year conflict.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is a country rich in natural resources, including large deposits of tin, tantalum, and tungsten -- metals used to manufacture many of the electronics found in U.S. homes, such as laptops, cell phones, iPods and digital cameras.

U.S. and international electronics companies purchase significant quantities of these metals from the DRC, despite a ten-year civil war that has cost an estimated 5.4 million lives. Rebel groups perpetuating the country's conflict are funded by profits from mining activities, and by unwitting American consumers who purchase electronics using minerals sourced from mines in eastern DRC.

However, two upcoming Senate bills could have significant impact on reducing the conflict by providing consumers and investors with information on where minerals are sourced and how much money is paid to foreign governments. Both the Congo Conflict Minerals Act and the Extractive Industries Transparency Disclosure Act would require companies listed on the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to disclose this information in their financial reports.

The Congo Conflict Minerals Act, recently introduced by Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS), Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Russ Feingold (D-WI), would require electronic companies such as Apple, Nokia and Nintendo, to report the exact location of mines in DRC from which they receive tin, tantalum and tungsten. This publicly available information would inform consumers whether the electronics they purchase originate from conflict zones in the DRC.

Passing the Congo Conflict Minerals Act, if accompanied by sufficient publicity, would likely have a significant impact on consumer (and eventually, corporate) behavior. As evident from the effective embargo on blood diamonds from Sierra Leone, many Americans and Europeans are conscientious consumers, sensitive to breaking the link between conflict and natural resources. U.S. and international companies also have reputational concerns. The SEC is a principal source of company information for potential investors.

A second bill soon to be reintroduced in the Senate -- the Extractive Industries Transparency Disclosure Act -- would have broader implications for the effective use of natural resource revenues around the world.

Under this Act, all SEC-listed companies would be required to fully disclose the amount of money paid to foreign governments for oil, gas, and minerals in their required financial statements. Such transparency would allow companies to build solid reputations based on partnering with governments response to their citizens' needs and concerns. The Act would also mark an important step in ensuring sound revenue management, and fighting the corruption that hinders African countries from translating resource wealth into economic growth.

The pressing reality in eastern DRC, where on Monday Hillary Clinton met victims of one of the world's worst conflicts, underlines the urgency for precedent-setting U.S. action requiring companies to report on their financial flows into war-torn regions.

Despite a nine-year presence by the world's largest United Nations peacekeeping operation -- 18,422 personnel at an annual cost of $1.2 billion -- rebel forces in DRC continue to terrorize innocent citizens. Over one million women and children have become victims of sexual assault and rape in eastern DRC.

Lack of good governance in eastern DRC has played a significant role in allowing these atrocities to occur. Based on research by the World Resources Institute and our local partner organizations in Africa, we believe the Congo Conflict Minerals Act and the Extractive Industries Transparency Disclosure Act would provide a powerful platform for U.S. development assistance to work with governments to ensure revenues from natural resources contribute to economic growth and poverty reduction.

Ending the conflict in DRC is a long-standing and high-priority U.S. policy objective. In October 2006, then-President George Bush argued that the conflict constituted "an unusual and extraordinary threat" to our foreign policy. President Obama's administration has made its concern equally clear, hence the secretary of state's visit.

Strong Congressional support is needed now to prioritize and pass both the Congo Conflict Minerals Act and the Extractive Industries Transparency Disclosure Act. While iPods and cell phones are integral in our daily lives, our convenience should not be bought at great detriment to others.

Peter Veit, a Senior Associate with WRI, and Sarah McHaney, an intern at WRI, co-authored this post.