Embedded in the financial reform President Obama signed into law last week was a truly historic regulatory provision — one that doesn't pertain to Wall Street but to the Democratic Republic of Congo. In an effort to choke off funding for the armed thugs and rebel militias that have killed more than 5 million people and turned Congo into the rape capital of the world, the new law will require thousands of U.S. companies to disclose whether their products contain minerals from rebel-controlled mines.
Tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold are essential to the manufacture of cellphones, laptop computers, digital cameras and other products. It is only in recent years, thanks to public-awareness campaigns by groups such as the Enough Project, that American consumers have begun to understand that the gadgets adding convenience to their lives are often the byproducts of forced labor, sexual violence and mass murder. The new law attacks the rebels financially. Publicly traded companies will have to submit annual reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission disclosing whether their products contain minerals from Congo or adjacent countries. If they do, the companies must explain what steps they are taking to trace the origin of those minerals, to determine whether they come from mines that fund armed conflict. No penalties are imposed, but the disclosure of these steps must be made on the firms' websites. Until now, many tech companies have relied on their suppliers to reject conflict minerals, with few actually checking to see that they do. Now the world will see their true level of commitment. Some do appear committed: Hewlett-Packard, for example, issued a statement of support for the legislation when it passed.