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Obama Signs Financial Reform, Ushering in New Law on Conflict Minerals

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Obama Signs Financial Reform, Ushering in New Law on Conflict Minerals

Posted by Laura Heaton on July 21, 2010

With President Obama’s signature, the highly anticipated bill on financial reform became law today, and with it, the United States also took a significant step to address the mineral trade fueling conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The financial regulation bill includes a provision requiring U.S. companies that import products containing certain minerals to file an annual report declaring whether they source their minerals from Congo or one of the nine surrounding countries, since much of Congo’s mineral wealth is smuggled out of the region through its neighbors. If a company declares that its supply chain passes through the region, it will have to report what steps it is taking to trace the origin of the minerals and ensure that its purchases don’t fund armed groups responsible for atrocities in eastern Congo.

While the provision doesn’t ban companies from importing conflict minerals into the United States, companies will have to publish this information on their websites. Consumers will then be able to choose which products to buy based on a company’s track record in Congo, not to mention give advocacy groups information to organize around.

“The consequence is a market-driven one. Consumers can make their choices,” said Rory Anderson of World Vision, quoted today in a front page story in The Washington Post. “Do they want their electronic products to be funding gang rape in central Africa? I don’t think most Americans would want that,” she said.

One of the key Congressional champions of conflict minerals legislation is Representative Jim McDermott (D-WA). The Conflict Minerals Trade Act, which he co-sponsored last year with Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf (R), was a precursor to today’s law. “Making something like this happen in Washington, D.C. in this climate (…) you don’t understand how difficult it is (to do) what we were trying to do,” said McDermott this morning at an event he hosted for advocacy organizations, to recognize the success made possible by the collective effort of advocates in Congress and in the grassroots movement active across the country. Both the congressman and Enough’s John Prendergast, who spoke at the gathering, praised the indispensable work of activists who kept up the pressure on their elected officials to move the bill through Congress. Here’s a clip:

Congressman McDermott is one of a bipartisan group of representatives and senators who pushed Congress to take action on an important element driving the decade-long war in Congo that is marked by atrocious human rights crimes, including an epidemic of rape. Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS), Dick Durbin (D-IL), and Russ Feingold (D-WI), Representatives Howard Berman (D-CA), and Donald Payne (D-NJ), and Chairmen Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Barney Frank (D-MA), who ushered the bill through both houses of Congress deserve special praise for taking a major step to ending the neglected conflict in eastern Congo.

With the news last week that the Senate had passed the financial reform bill, sending it to President Obama’s desk, the Congolese government issued a statement commending the U.S. Congress for its effort to help Congo tackle an issue that has long plagued its eastern region. Translated from its original French version, the statement said that the bill helps address the sensitive topic of blood minerals “while reinforcing our commitment to develop responsible business practices that allow our people to make real dividends from resources in the soil and below the ground of the Republic.”

Now that the bill is signed, the Securities and Exchange Commission has nine months to devise the regulations to implement the law. Industry groups attempted to gut the conflict minerals language from the draft bill, and they will surely fight hard to water down the provision at this stage.

There’s a long road ahead, no doubt littered with ploys by those who currently benefit from the trade in conflict minerals. But consensus is clearly building around the belief that cutting off militias in eastern Congo from a key source of funding is good not just for Congolese civilians and the Congolese government, but also for U.S. consumers and companies that prioritize social responsibility.