Cracking down on 'conflict minerals'

The deadliest conflict since World War II, in which 5.4 million people have died and 200,000 women have been raped, rages far from Iraq and Afghanistan. It is in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where murderous militias are battling for control of valuable minerals such as tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, which are essential to the worldwide production of consumer electronics. Congolese, in other words, are dying in extraordinary numbers for our cellphones and video games, digital cameras and laptop computers.

Most consumers are unaware that these gadgets often have their beginnings in Congo's torment. Not only are militia-controlled mines the cause of continuing warfare, but they are hellish places to work. Much of the mining is done by local villagers forced into labor against their will -- and, in some cases, by enslaved children -- with few or no safety measures or precautions taken.

The international community has imposed a series of arms embargoes and sanctions in an effort to weaken the militias; the U.N. Security Council recently extended its embargo. High-powered weapons, however, remain readily available, and violence is undiminished. It's time to turn to the businesses that profit from Congo's "conflict minerals" and to figure out a way -- as was done with conflict diamonds -- that they can certify which mines in Congo are operating legally and safely. A handful of companies have voluntarily begun to research and take steps on the issue, including Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp., Dell Inc. and Motorola Inc. They deserve encouragement, but individual corporate efforts are not a sufficient substitute for national policy.

Two bills pending in Congress could start the process. A House bill is aimed at the middlemen -- the smelters -- that receive raw minerals from Congo and neighboring countries they're routed through. Under the bill, smelters -- most of which are located in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia -- would have to agree to be audited in order to export to the U.S. And after two years of auditing, they would have to certify whether their products contain conflict minerals. A Senate bill would require publicly traded companies to disclose the origins of the minerals they use and, if the source is Congo or a neighboring country, the name of the mine.

Both bills raise questions, such as who would do the auditing and how the certification process would work. But the fact that legislation is pending in Washington already has put pressure on mine officials in Africa, according to human rights activists. It won't be easy, but certifying minerals as "conflict free" can be done. We did it with diamonds. We can do it with minerals too.

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