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African leaders pledge to wipe out trade of conflict minerals

A Congolese worker separates coltan and cassiterite, or tin ore, in a mud hut at Numbi in eastern Congo.

� Katrina Manson / Reuters/REUTERS

Leaders from 11 nations in the conflict-ravaged Great Lakes region of central Africa on Tuesday signed a pledge – partly drafted by a Canadian organization – to stamp out the illegal trade of conflict minerals.

Signed at a summit in the Zambian capital of Lusaka by governments including the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi, the pledge commits signatory states to take steps to implement a regional certification system to track such minerals as they are exported from Africa for smelting in Asia.

The summit was called to address mining practices that have helped to fuel mass rapes and massacres in the eastern provinces of Congo. The illegitimate mining of minerals such as coltan, tungsten, tin and gold, which are used in electronic devices, is widespread in the region and often finances armed groups.

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Among the mechanisms to be implemented is a "bag-and-tag" system in which minerals are tagged at their point of origin. The African nations also said they would create a database to make it easier to identify and track minerals that originate in areas of conflict.

The move by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region comes as governments in the United States, Canada and Europe consider legislation that would make roughly 6,000 manufacturers, including BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd., responsible for tracking the minerals used in their products.

In Canada, New Democratic and Liberal MPs have proposed bills that would regulate the conflict-mineral trade. In the United States, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act contains a sweeping clause that would empower the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to ask companies for information about their mineral purchases. The U.S. law would affect thousands of electronics manufacturers, including Apple Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co., as well as retailers.

On Wednesday, the SEC suggested new guidelines for the Dodd-Frank act that would require companies to disclose in annual reports whether they used conflict minerals from Congo or a neighbouring country. If so, the company would have to submit a separate report to the SEC, audited by a third party, on the company's due diligence measures to ensure the minerals weren't funding conflict.

Details of the certification process signed in Lusaka were crafted by an Ottawa-based non-governmental organization called Partnership Africa Canada (PAC). The group was instrumental in the Kimberley Process designed to halt the trade in "blood diamonds." PAC operates in the Great Lakes region of central Africa with $1.8-million in funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs.

"This is a declaration of heads of state. It's a political commitment. One could say that's a legal commitment," Bernard Taylor, PAC's executive director, said in a phone interview from Lusaka. "The key thing is that they commit themselves to put into place a regional certification process for these high-value minerals, and take associated steps in each country to make this happen."

Signing a declaration to stop the exploitation of coltan, tungsten, tin and gold, Mr. Taylor notes, does not immediately resolve the conflict-minerals issue. Brutal wars are still raging in parts of Congo. And in order to police the trade in so-called conflict minerals, states need to have a well-armed and well-paid police force, as well as knowledgeable customs officials, he said, something that will require a lot of "capacity building."

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Partnership Africa Canada's involvement with the African leaders' conference dates back to 2005. The organization has helped the summit grapple with flaws related to on-the-ground monitoring that marred the Kimberley Process.

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