WASHINGTON –– New federal rules regarding the use of so-called conflict minerals in cellphones and laptop computers protect innocent people in Congo from displacement and serious harm and must remain in place, said advocates from two prominent Catholic organizations.
The rules provide U.S. consumers with information about the components of the products they buy and can shed light on the actions of rebel groups fighting over control of strategic mining regions in central Africa, staff members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services said during a nationwide webcast Oct. 25.
The regulations require that companies using natural resources such as tantalum, tin, gold and tungsten in popular electronic devices have two years to begin reporting on material obtained from Congo and neighboring countries and the route followed to the consumer market, said Richard Coll, foreign policy adviser on Latin America and global trade at the USCCB.
Congo has experienced 16 years of fighting among various rebel groups competing for strategic and mineral-rich portions of the country.
The U.S. rules do not specify any other action to be taken except by State Department to develop a strategy to promote peace and end the violence that has left 5.4 million people dead and millions more displaced.
However, the rules, introduced by the Securities and Exchange Commission Aug. 22, are being challenged in the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington by two business groups that claim they are ineffective, burdensome and too costly to implement.
Kathleen Kahlau, adviser in Catholic Relief Services’ Office for Legislative Affairs in Washington, urged webcast participants to press Congress to keep the rules in place in the face of opposition from business groups.
“At this point we have to pray this continues,” she said.
The rules were disseminated under a requirement of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. They require companies to make “reasonable” efforts to determine if various minerals came from Congo or neighboring countries.
A lawsuit filed Oct. 19 by the National Association of Manufacturers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce asks the U.S. Court of Appeals to rescind or modify the rules.
Ed Kiely, CRS regional representative for Central and West Africa, said that Congo has seen a surge in violence since the April defection of high-ranking officers from the Congolese army formed a rebel group. Calling itself M23, the rebels have undertaken an offensive to gain control of key mining areas.
The recent fighting has displaced 260,000 Congolese while another 42,000 refugees have fled to Uganda and 20,000 to Rwanda, Kiely said.
“The situation is very dire and the use of conflict minerals is a tragic component in the way the violence is being committed,” Coll explained.
Human rights groups have reported that the government of neighboring Rwanda has supported the rebels. Uganda has offered to mediate between the Congolese government and M23 leaders.
The Catholic Church also has been involved for years in regional peacebuilding efforts, Kiely added.
Brenden Williams, a CRS staff member in Goma, Congo, reviewed some of the work the U.S. bishops’ overseas development and relief agency is carrying out on behalf of people displaced by the violence as well as others in poor communities.
Working with Congolese partners, CRS has assisted more than 5,000 households. It has focused on food security programs, such as seed distribution and cash for work projects, agriculture and nutrition programs, including support for breastfeeding mothers, food distribution and education, according to CRS statistics.
The webcast was sponsored by Catholics Confront Global Poverty, a program of the USCCB and CRS.
Editor’s Note: More information on the U.S. Catholic Church’s stance on the situation in Congo can be found online at www.usccb.org/about/justice-peace-and-human-development/catholic-social-ministry-gathering/upload/2012-02DRCBackgrounder-final.pdf and at crs.org/democratic-republic-of-congo/