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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Now to a country that's long been unstable. Congo is rich in minerals, yet many of its mineral mines are controlled by armed militias, which use the minerals to fund their vicious operations. That's given rise to a new concern, a twist on blood diamonds. This time, it's conflict minerals. U.S. companies are, by law, supposed to make public where they get their rare metals for electronics consumed here. Though companies are not required to stop buying the conflict minerals, if the law is enforced, consumers and activists will be able to look more closely at the supply chain.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Delly Mawazo Sesete wants American consumers to know what's in their smart phones, computers and other electronics and where U.S. companies like Apple are getting those rare metals.

DELLY MAWAZO SESTE: Without knowing, consumers in U.S. would be fueling conflicts in eastern Congo.

KELEMEN: The human rights activist is from a remote part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where armed groups are wreaking havoc and get much of their funding from mining rare metals.

SESTE: All the money that armed groups get from that exploitation is used to buy weapons and other ammunition so that they may cause injury to people. So you can see men slaughtered, the pillage, rape against women and young girls.

KELEMEN: Some of Sesete's own family members have been forced from their homes in mineral rich areas of eastern Congo. The country's riches, he says, have been a curse.

Congressman Jim McDermott, a Democrat from Washington state, agrees.

REPRESENTATIVE JIM MCDERMOTT: These minerals are coming from the most conflicted area in the world, where women are raped by the thousands, where men are held in slavery and humiliated by having their wives raped in front of them. All of this mayhem is the basis for the mining of tin, tungsten and tantalum, which are elements that are essential for the creation of a BlackBerry.

KELEMEN: And most electronics. McDermott is hopeful that a new U.S. law could help this situation. Buried deep in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is a provision that requires U.S. companies to disclose the source of their minerals. Proponents like McDermott say it is past time for the Securities and Exchange Commission to tell companies what they must do to comply with that law.

MCDERMOTT: The companies, they're not opposed, they just want to know what the rules are so they can follow them; so they could say our product is acceptable.

KELEMEN: Those rules have been slow in coming, says Daniel Kaufmann of the Brookings Institution. He co-sponsored a conference on this issue in Washington and says there has been a debate about the price U.S. companies are facing to implement any new regulations.

DANIEL KAUFMANN: There is a tendency to exaggerate how costly it is to disclose. In any case, a modern company, a large company, has to gather all this information if it is well managed.

KELEMEN: There's nothing in the law that says companies can't use conflict minerals, they just have to disclose the source of their rare metals. Kaufman doesn't expect quick changes on the ground and points out that Congo has many other problems as the recent disputed elections highlighted. But he says in this one area, the U.S. can lead by example.

KAUFMANN: On the one hand, it is the case that it is important that it's not just one piece of legislation, and only one country doing it and affecting only one set of companies. But on the other, let's not underestimate the dynamic that is set by taking the lead.

KELEMEN: Kaufman says the European Union is working on similar rules of the game, as is South Korea. And activists hope China can be convinced as well to help clean up Congo's mining sector. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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