In an attempt to stem the flow of mineral and mining finance which it sees as fueling the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the US Senate is forging ahead with new legislation, in the form of the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009 (the “Bill”), that will compel US companies to track and disclose the country of origin of minerals used in common electronic products.

Conflict minerals (such as cassiterite, coltan and wolframite) used in electronic devices are a major source of funding for armed groups in eastern Congo. According to a recent study commissioned by the Enough Project, Congolese armed groups earn approximately US$85million a year from the trade in tin, US$8million from tantalum and US$2million from tungsten.

If passed, the Bill would provide the authority for the US government to ensure that the US mineral trade does not inadvertently support armed conflict or contribute to human rights abuses while at the same time developing mechanisms to allow the Congolese people to benefit from their natural resources. The Bill will require greater transparency from US companies that are involved in commercial activities involving conflict minerals (in particular, electronics companies) by disclosing the country of origin of their minerals to the Securities and Exchange Commission. If the minerals are from the DRC, or neighboring countries, companies would be required to disclose the mine of origin. The Bill also calls for expanded US efforts to improve conditions and livelihoods for communities in eastern Congo who are dependent upon mining.

In the longer-term, the Bill sponsors hope that the DRC and its neighbors will establish a regional framework to prevent the illicit trade of conflict minerals. Supporters of the Bill have been quick to point out that they are not seeking to restrict or ban the export of natural resources from the DRC as such sanctions would simply push companies and foreign investment out of the region and therefore endanger the livelihoods of small-scale miners. The hope is rather to regulate the trade so as to ensure that people of the DRC benefit from the sale of their country’s resources.

The prospects for the success of Bill are, as yet, unclear. However, commentators are optimistic that the legislation will pass in some form this year given the bipartisan support for the Bill. The Obama administration has not commented on the legislation as it is still reviewing its DRC policy, however, NGOs remain hopeful that the administration will support the Bill.