Activists are eagerly awaiting an announcement that will impact the years of work spent fighting the use of conflict minerals from Congo.

Credit: Julien Harneis/Creative Commons

Activists across the country are eagerly awaiting an announcement that will impact the years of work that have been spent fighting against the use of conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo. These activists — many of whom are students — represent a growing movement of informed advocates who seek to use their role as consumers to make a difference in eastern Congo.

On August 22, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) — which is a federal agency responsible for regulating the stock market — will vote on rules related to conflict minerals. While the SEC seems like an unlikely agent of change in the Democratic Republic of Congo, it plays a valuable role in bringing stability to the conflict-ridden region.

The 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street and Consumer Protection Act requires publicly traded companies to annually disclose to the SEC where the minerals in their products are coming from. This requirement, often referred to as “section 1502” from the Act, has the potential to legitimize the mining sector of the Congo so that is can become an instrument of development, not violence. Though the guidelines have not been finalized, the Enough Project recently cited electronic companies’ new conflict mineral policies as the reason armed groups’ profits from the conflict mineral trade has dropped 65% in the last two years.

It has been two years since Dodd-Frank was originally passed, and 16 months since the SEC was required to release the disclosure requirements. In the meantime, corporations and advocacy groups have worked to sway the SEC to release rules in their favor. Some corporations have been working to water down the rule and delay full implementation by encouraging a phase in period.

Cue the conflict free student movement.

The Conflict Free Campus Initiative (CFCI) is a joint effort of the Enough Project and STAND, the student-led division of United to End Genocide. CFCI represents a constituency of students who want conflict free electronic products. Currently, there are over 100 local CFCI campaigns at colleges and universities in the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom. In the past two years, 11 schools — including Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, Duke University, Clark University, and Emory University — have passed resolutions and policies prioritizing companies who are taking action to become conflict free. In July, high school STAND students in Edina, Minnesota even got their city council to pass a conflict free resolution, making Edina the third conflict free city in the country.

The movement is growing, and companies are starting to feel the pressure. When Duke University students made a video asking alumnus Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, to get serious about making a conflict free device, they got a phone call from his office. Motorola Solutions has piloted a closed-pipe supply line project to guarantee the tantalum it uses in its products is conflict free. Intel has even committed to make a conflict free processor by 2013.

While some companies have made significant efforts to address this issue, these represent a very small number of electronics companies who have even acknowledged their usage of conflict minerals. On August 16, the Enough Project released their 2012 company rankings, which measures leading electronic companies’ progress on becoming conflict free. On the bottom of the list are companies like Nintendo, HTC, Sharp, Nikon and Canon. Building on the movement’s momentum and well aware of the need for continued pressure, CFCI students will continue advocating for companies to make conflict free products, and educating their communities about the conflict in eastern Congo.

For the moment, the focus is on the August 22 SEC ruling. The strength of the rules will determine the path forward. Releasing robust rules would be a major step forward towards ending the violence in the Congo. However, if the rules are watered down or include a delay in full compliance, it will be a signal for activists to ramp up pressure on companies.

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