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Sasha Lezhnev Headshot

Reforming Wall Street and Ending the World's Deadliest War: Congo

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Score a win for the grassroots against special interests. Last week, thousands of people across the country wrote and called their senators asking them to support a section in the Wall Street reform bill that addressed 'conflict minerals' from Congo, the new blood diamonds. They even posted thousands of comments on senators' Facebook pages, requesting that they not pander to special interests and pass this important provision. And while the final victory is yet to come, they won the battle.

As we speak, conflict minerals are helping fuel the deadliest war in the world since World War II, the conflict in eastern Congo in which 1,100 women are raped every month, and 1,500 people die every day. The main armed groups that orchestrate the violence make hundreds of millions of dollars by trading in four minerals - the 3 Ts of tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold. These minerals are then bought by electronics and jewelry companies and are used in our cell phones, laptops, and gold necklaces.

We just returned from Congo and remember one woman in particular, Jane, who was raped seven times in a row by a group of militia commanders. Jane asked us to tell the U.S. government and companies to do all they could to help end this war.

Fed up that consumer purchases are contributing to Congo's bloody crisis, Senators Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a bipartisan bill two years ago to try to combat the conflict minerals trade. Since then, these courageous senators have traveled to the war zone in Congo, worked tirelessly to bring attention to the issue through Congressional hearings and briefings, and have made every effort to involve companies in a solution. A bipartisan coalition has since joined them, with Rep. Jim McDermott (D-WA) introducing a House conflict minerals bill last November, and Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) co-sponsoring the Brownback-Durbin bill.

But the conflict minerals campaign is now a grassroots civic movement, not simply a Washington-led effort. With thousands of wall postings, a recent Facebook campaign drew the attention of several key senators and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof; Stanford University's board just passed a conflict-free electronics resolution, and several campuses have promised to follow; 60 Minutes aired a segment on conflict gold that won the "Liberty for Media" award; the "I'm a Mac, and I have a Dirty Little Secret" video has had over 400,000 views in less than a week; and scores of protestors picketed the opening of Apple's first store in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago. People across America see the urgency of this issue: we do not want rape and conflict inside our cell phones.

The Brownback amendment that is currently part of the financial reform bill will make companies accountable for making sure they do not source minerals from conflict areas. Companies that source from Congo or neighboring countries will have to conduct an audit to make sure that they did not source from a conflict mine. This tracing and auditing is possible - Intel and Motorola are already starting credible audits on one of the minerals, tantalum. Moreover, the process is inexpensive: the audits will only cost one penny per product, according to electronics companies.

Last week, Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) led a brave effort to keep the Brownback amendment in the bill, together with the bill co-sponsors and Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA). Special interests lobbied heavily against the provision, arguing that it was too expensive and would unfairly undercut American business. Yet the majority of the companies that use these minerals are listed on U.S. stock exchanges, including foreign companies, so it would actually set a level playing field for industry. Moreover, U.S. regulations help set global standards, and this audit provision would set a common standard for minerals supply and smelting companies around the world.

But the real question that Americans asked themselves last week was: Is one additional penny for a cell phone really too much to pay for accountability? A clear majority said no, and they weighed in with their elected representatives to say so. It's now time for Congress to listen to its constituents and finish this fight on Wall Street reform.

John Prendergast is Co-Founder of Enough, the anti-genocide project at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

Sasha Lezhnev is Executive Director of Grassroots Reconciliation Group and consultant to the campaign, led by the Enough Project, to help stop the trade in conflict minerals originating from eastern Congo.