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Scott Pelley to Wal-Mart: Stop Using Congo Gold in Your Jewelry

November 30, 2009

60 Minutes ran an excellent expose on conflict minerals in the Congo last night. You can see some of it here:

Watch CBS News Videos Online

Good coverage of an under-reported area of the world. It left me with two thoughts:

First, via Facebook, my colleague Virginia Haufler suggests this story shows that corporations rather than states are running the show in issue areas such as conflict minerals – both as trouble-makers and potential governors. (Haufler makes this argument at greater length in a chapter of a forthcoming book, Who Governs the Globe) And I thought the same thing when I first watched the segment. Certainly as Scott Pelley framed it, corporations should be the targets of influence for consumer campaigns aimed at stemming the flow of conflict minerals. Still, I’m not sure that means states don’t have a role to play in enforcing such codes of conduct. I think it may mean not that corporations rule but that issue areas like conflict minerals are cases where multi-level, multi-stakeholder governance would be required to create solutions. The Kimberley Process for conflict diamonds exemplified this approach (though it is not without its drawbacks, as this new report suggests). Certainly the segment suggested that we need an advocacy movement for “conflict gold” like the one for “conflict diamonds” in order to bring corporations and source countries to heel in the service of a more humane trading system.

But in that regard, I was left with another question. The role of the gold trade in fueling conflicts may have previously been overshadowed by the earlier success story of the conflict diamonds campaign, in a classic case of “permissive norm effects.” By highlighting a small piece of a bigger problem, campaigns risk legitimizing or at least rendering less visible the other pieces of the problem. But DRC is the source of many minerals critical to Northern industries, not just gold. In the same way that diamonds from African mines were regulated to the exclusion of gold, does the narrow focus on gold now risk coming at the expense of attention to other lucrative minerals, such as coltan?

Notably, organizations working in the area of DRC conflict resources, such as Global Witness and the Enough Project, are taking a broad view, so the focus on gold may be the media’s rather than the campaign’s.

UPDATE: I was able to reach John Prendergast, who appeared in the segment, to verify whether 60 Minutes’ characterization of the issue maps onto the Enough Project’s campaign. He told me that though Pelley locked onto gold early on and retained that focus throughout, advocacy groups such as Enough are actually focusing on consumer electronics – not just coltan but:

“the three T’s: tin, tungsten and tantalum… we’re focusing on cell phones, laptops and other electronic products because everyone uses them and if we demand conflict free electronic products the supply and demand logic will help do the job.”

A wise strategy, in my mind. What do readers think?

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Charli Carpenter is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She is the author of 'Innocent Women and Children': Gender, Norms and the Protection of Civilians (Ashgate, 2006), Forgetting Children Born of War: Setting the Human Rights
Agenda in Bosnia and Beyond (Columbia, 2010), and ‘Lost’ Causes: Agenda-Setting in Global Issue Networks and the Shaping of Human Security (Cornell, 2014). Her main research interests include national security ethics, the protection of civilians, the laws of war, global agenda-setting, gender and political violence, humanitarian affairs, the role of information technology in human security, and the gap between intentions and outcomes among advocates of human security.