Human rights activists have been waiting for at least a year to see the Department of Commerce’s breakdown of global conflict mining sites. Still, the department’s announcement last week that its data was, well, inconclusive, was no surprise.
In a 24-page report that was intended to address the whereabouts of conflict mineral mines and processing facilities, the DOC admitted that while it was able to supply a list of 400 operational sites throughout the world, its hands were tied when it came to determining certifiably which used slave or abusive labor in their camps.
“We do not have the ability to distinguish such facilities,” the DOC said matter-of-factly.
In 2010, the Dodd-Frank Act charged the DOC with the responsibility of identifying “all known conflict mineral processing facilities world-wide” and filing a report by January 2013, a deadline the DOC apparently wasn’t able to meet. And to its defense, the challenge of narrowing down where all gold, tungsten, tantalum and tin come from is formidable. Both the Garmin Corporation (which makes GPS equipment using mined substances) and U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness has weighed in on this requirement, with the latter questioning whether the Act actually helps or hinders human rights in repressed areas.
Still, the challenge hasn’t deterred some companies and agencies from trying to remove conflict minerals from the marketplace. The Intel Corp., which announced in January of this year that it would source all of its microprocessor materials from conflict-free zones, has now upped the ante. The company says that by 2016, it wants its supply chain to be completely conflict-mineral-free.
And it’s working hard to bring along its customer base. To help spread the word about what the expression “conflict minerals” really means, the company gave an overview of its corporate responsibility efforts. It's provided easy-to-read infographics on its website to demonstrate where conflict minerals are used in our computers, such as the microprocessor, camera and charging battery.
Intel has also provided a handy map that zeroes in on the very areas of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and nearby countries where the minerals are mined and processed, from the point of extraction and smeltering to the manufacturing and purchase of finished products.
And it's provided numbers: plenty of data to show why the 5.4 million casualties that have been attributed to the conflict mineral trade make it the “most brutal conflict since World War II.”
So, why is it that a company that relies on these minerals to make its products has been more successful in nailing down where conflict materials come from than a government agency? Some would say it’s due to Washington bureaucracy, but it seems to me the issue speaks to the very heart of why it’s been so hard to eradicate conflict-based labor, and why Intel’s approach, with its consumer-based initiative, is the answer to this human rights issue.
Just the same, the General Accounting Office (GAO) hasn’t let Commerce off the hook. In June, the GAO took issue with DOC’s failure to comply with the Dodd-Frank requirements on time. It levied the lack of response on Commerce’s lack of “a plan of action, with associated time frames, for developing and reporting on the list of conflict minerals processing facilities worldwide.” Forming an action plan, said GAO, “with timeframes could better position Commerce to report on the status of its efforts to produce a final list to Congress and to hold its personnel accountable for completing activities.”
To make the point, the GAO published its own list. In this case, it is an inventory of the compliant facilities, some of which have sprung up since Dodd-Frank came into existence.
Conflict-free facilities, “have grown to include new mine sites, countries and smelters. For example, the Conflict-Free Smelter Program, an industry-led effort, has expanded from 26 smelters certified as conflict-free in 2013 to 85 smelters as of April 25, 2014,” said the GAO.
Maybe that’s the way to approach this issue. Perhaps documenting the who’s and where’s of conflict mineral profits shouldn’t be the responsibility of a commerce office that has neither the manpower, the executive privilege nor the law enforcement protection to survey illicit camps in foreign countries.
Efforts of companies like Intel and government reports that detail the positive changes to a dynamic, controversial and lucrative industry may be the best way to send a message that minerals and products that are gained at the expense of human rights are no longer wanted by those who face customer scrutiny.
Image credit: Julien Harneis
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.