Combating conflict minerals

OU student group campaigns for university to stop buying electronics made from Congo metals

A student organization wants Ohio University to acknowledge the tie between electronics companies’ mineral use and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo — even though there is no way to guarantee that tie.

Bobcats for a Conflict-Free Campus — a sub-group of STAND Against Genocide, which focuses primarily on social genocide conflicts — is asking OU officials to discourage the production of technology with minerals obtained from illegal mines in the Congo.

The majority of recent conflict in Africa has been concentrated in the eastern section of the Congo, where tantalum, cobalt, tin and tungsten are being mined, sometimes illegally, said Maurice Carney, executive director of Friends of the Congo.

Those minerals are used in cellphone and wireless-technology production.
Research indicates that 64 percent of the world’s coltan — from which tantalum is extracted — comes from the Congo. Electronics companies purchase from the Congo because the minerals there are cheap, Carney said.

The eastern region is far from the Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, which exacerbates the conflict in the east, said Marc Scarcelli, an OU political science professor and Conflict-Free’s faculty adviser.

This allowed the region to ally with neighboring countries Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. A civil war in the Congo in the 1990s grew to involve six countries, with a death toll estimated at 5.4 million.

The war has ended, but an estimated 6,000 more people were killed in rebel-controlled areas in the eastern side of the country where illegal mining operated by rebel groups or government soldiers is prevalent, Scarcelli said.

Although some of the mines in the Congo are legal, there is no way to identify where particular minerals are coming from, Carney said, leaving electronics companies open to buying minerals from conflicted areas.

One possible certification process, the “Kimberly process,” originated because of the conflict surrounding the extraction of diamonds in Kimberly Africa. It allowed diamonds to be sourced back to their place of origin. That process is demanded by consumers and has been effective but not entirely foolproof in recent years, Scarcelli said.

“Even though it’s no longer an international war, you’ve still got multiple armed groups (in the Congo),” Scarcelli said. “You’ve still got whole villages being attacked and child soldiers and mass rape, and some of the worst human-rights atrocities in the world are still being perpetuated there. (It is) by far the deadliest conflict since World War II, and it’s largely been ignored by most of the rest of the world.”

To avoid the consequences of using illegal mines, Congolese groups reroute minerals through neighboring countries such as Rwanda before selling them to electronics companies, claiming the minerals originated in the other countries, Scarcelli said.

“It is sort of an offense to common sense that you would attempt to claim that these minerals are coming from a country that doesn’t have these minerals in the ground,” Scarcelli said. “So it’s kind of like a bad joke in many ways, and it says a lot about how little is being done and how little serious action is being taken.”

In July 2010, the Dodd-Frank Act required U.S. electronics companies to disclose whether the minerals they used were taken from the Congo.
The act states, “…the exploitation and trade of conflict minerals originating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and adjoining countries … is helping to finance conflict characterized by extreme levels of violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, particularly sexual- and gender-based violence, and contributing to an emergency humanitarian situation therein.”

But Thomas Turner, U.S. specialist for the Democratic Republic of Congo and volunteer for Amnesty International, said he is skeptical of the law’s effectiveness.

The law asks companies to “monitor and stop commercial activities … that contribute to the activities of armed groups and human-rights violations,” but there is no U.S. entity whose responsibility is to recognize whether the minerals coming into the country are legal, he said.

“If the export of these minerals is clearly illegal and still going on, is anybody going to do anything about it?” Turner said.

Still, some companies are seeking change. Motorola Solutions Inc., a company that produces communication devices, is exploring ways to create products without using minerals from conflicted areas through an initiative called the Solutions for Hope Project, according to its website.

Motorola Mobility Inc. has also decided to pursue making products with “clean minerals,” which come from non-conflicted areas. The company is forcing its providers to “disclose banned, controlled and reportable substances as well as recycled material content,” according to its website.

OU’s Conflict-Free hopes to see a similar response from university administration with a statement acknowledging the link between the companies purchasing illegal minerals from the Congo and the violence in the area.

The group’s longer-term goals include seeing OU change its procurement and shareholder-resolution policies to favor companies making products with clean minerals.

“(OU President Roderick McDavis) has heard (Conflict-Free’s proposal) loud and clear,” said Becky Watts, McDavis’ chief of staff. “He believes this is a serious issue and devoted diligence is required. Devoted diligence takes time. He wants to do it right. Doing it right takes longer.”

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