Why We Should Care About the Congo

07/23/2010 06:51 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Deep in the mountains that separate the Democratic Republic of the Congo from Rwanda, largely hidden from public view, a war has been raging for the past 14 years. In this gruesome conflict, rape is frequently the weapon of choice, and a wide array of armed groups with many different patrons fight mercilessly for control of mineral riches.

There is no easy solution to ending the war in Congo, which has claimed more than five million lives, making it the most lethal conflict since World War II. But the Wall Street reform legislation signed into law by President Obama includes a far-reaching provision designed to reduce the horrific violence. Building on the work of a coalition of a dozen major humanitarian organizations and industry pioneers, the bill establishes a new mechanism that will limit the ability of armed groups to profit from the illicit mining and sale of cassiterite, coltan, and wolframite and other "conflict minerals."

My colleagues and I have been working for months to pass this provision, and by partnering with the Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Barney Frank, and several other key allies in the House and Senate, including Rep. McDermott and Senators Brownback, Dodd, Durbin, and Feingold, we were able to secure broad, bipartisan support for a requirement that companies doing business in the Congo and adjoining countries disclose both the provenance of the minerals they use and the efforts they have taken to ensure that their dollars do not directly or indirectly support armed groups that employ rape as a tool of war and otherwise perpetuate the conflict.

Let there be no mistake: this is only one critical step of many that must be taken to stop one of the world's longest running wars. But it is a major step.

To be effective, this action must be paired with other efforts. By companies, who will need to build on the work of peers who have already started to develop conflict-free supply chains for the minerals they use. By consumers, who will need to make conscientious choices about the products they buy. By regulators, who will need to ensure that the disclosure process is taken seriously, and that loopholes are not reopened. And by Congress, which will need to carefully monitor the effectiveness of the new mechanism, and take other steps to enhance the ability of the United States to work for peace in places like Congo.

Several of those efforts are currently under consideration in the Foreign Affairs Committee. One that is a particularly high priority for me would overhaul U.S. foreign assistance programs for the first time since 1961, thus enabling our nation to more effectively and efficiently target and deliver our aid dollars.

In these difficult economic times, it is sometimes hard to understand why we should care about what happens in faraway and largely forgotten places like the Congo. But in our increasingly globalized world, conflicts in even distant corners of the world can create ripple effects -- from mass migrations and the spread of infectious disease, to deforestation and the depletion of other key natural resources -- that impact the current and future well-being of Americans.

Despite the difficult challenges we face here at home, Americans are a generous and compassionate people. Our values compel us to fight injustice wherever it occurs, and to reduce the suffering of innocents. The men, women, and children of the Congo have endured unimaginable hardships for more than a dozen years, and it is time for us to act. The conflict minerals provision in the just-passed Wall Street reform bill is an important first step in changing the situation in that beleaguered country.


The author is the Democratic Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. He represents the 28th District of California.