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The Little Conflict Minerals Clause That Snuck In

August 4, 2010

Obama recently signed into law a financial reform bill aimed at strengthening accountability on Wall Street.  What has received little media attention is that tucked in amidst the 2,300 pages of legislative jargon is a provision that has the potential to affect the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Listed under “Miscellaneous Provisions,” section 1502 of HR 4173 places regulations on corporations using mined minerals (namely electronics companies) to track and report if their products contain conflict minerals originating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

If you’re into dissecting the nitty-gritty of section 1502 of HR 4173, check out Wronging Right’s surprisingly witty guide, “Impress Your Friends and Outflank Your Enemies: The Wronging Rights Guide to the Conflict-Mineral Regulations in Section 1502 of HR 4173.”

To a perhaps naively guilt ridden consumer like me, this new legislation sounds like good news.  I’ve been clinging onto the same cell phone seven years strong, though it is now missing half its keys and frequently switches to texting in the Cyrillic alphabet without warning.  I’ve held out in a feeble attempt to avoid facing the ethical dilemma of purchasing yet another electronic product inevitably containing minerals financing the ongoing conflict in the DRC.  But will the legislation have a tangible affect on the lives of those caught in the crossfire of conflict or merely appease the consciences of consumers?

The Africa Monitor of the Christian Science Monitor offers two excellently laid out positions from guest bloggers:

Jason Stearns of Congo Siasa weighs in on “Why recent US ‘conflict mineral’ legislation is a good thing for Africa.” Stearns has identified his position as “grudgingly in favor.”  His main contention is that the minerals trade is not the core issue in the conflict, nor the origin of it.  An overemphasis on conflict minerals could result in the destruction of an economic sector that employs a large portion of the population.  Overall, Stearns supports the legislation because it could contribute to increasing accountability within the DRC.

Meanwhile, Laura Seay of Texas in Africa discusses “Why recent US ‘conflict minerals’ legislation may not help in eastern Congo.” Seay argues that the main rebel groups in the DRC are driven by ideological concerns more than economic motivations.  Since minerals are not the only trade financing the groups, they could find other means to finance their continuation.

Surrounding the debate on the impact of the new legislation, an interesting commentary has cropped up on the apparent rift between “researchers” and “activists.”  The advocacy group, Enough, co-founded by human rights activist John Prendergast, has largely led the movement to pass U.S. legislation on conflict minerals.  While Stearns and Seay may differ on their positions on the new legislation, what they can agree on is a strong distaste for the way groups like Enough have portrayed the conflict and the affect of this narrative on policy formation.  They are not alone in their critique.  Chris Blattman writes,

In my experience, advocacy groups like Enough create simple but problematic messages that get the attention of the US public and Congress, but eventually come back and bite good policy in the ass. The advocacy message drives aid, policy priorities, and national agendas to an amazing degree. Get it wrong, and you focus policy attention on the right problem but the wrong solution. *full post here.

The authors of Wronging Rights are a bit feistier,

As far as I can tell, Enough has not yet managed to get a single serious researcher of the eastern DRC to sign on to their analysis of the conflict. (Would anyone like to dispute this? I am willing to lower the bar to anybody who has spent more than six weeks straight in the Kivus.) *full post here.

Oh snap, Prendergast!  Ouch.

Here is the question I’m left pondering:  Does the nature advocacy work necessitate the over-simplification of policy?  Nuanced policy positions are not as compelling as succinct, flashy campaigns.  Perhaps it is not feasible for groups like Enough to comprehensively educate their audiences on proposed policies and their consequences, but should they be doing more?

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 5, 2010 8:58 am

    Incisive questions, Liz! I’m not sure I have an answer, but you’ve pulled together a nice analysis. The good news: Cyrillic’s not terribly hard to master.

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