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August 6, 2013

A welcome bright spot in Africa and human rights law

by: Jodi Westbrook Flowers

In a year of mixed court rulings in the field of human rights and anti-terrorism law, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia delivered a well-earned bright spot recently. The Court upheld the Security and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) Final Rule enforcing Dodd-Frank Section 1502. This ruling clears the way for increased transparency of multi-national companies using minerals from conflict regions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and adjacent countries– and will bring humanitarian relief to the lives of millions of people in the DRC region from the armed conflict that is funded by the sale of these minerals.

Motley Rice worked with the international humanitarian organization Global Witness to file the organization’s amicus brief in support of the SEC Final Rule, which requires corporations that file with the SEC to declare the source of minerals from the conflict regions that are used in a wide variety of consumer devices like our cell phones. In many cases, armed groups and militias in the DRC region have acquired weapons through the sale and trade of these minerals increasing the violence and mined with forced labor and inhumane conditions. The measure, mandated by Congress in the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, was intended to promote peace and foster stability in the region by ensuring activities of United States-listed companies involving such minerals did not finance or benefit armed groups. The move was welcomed by the government of the DRC.

Why did Congress take this step?

To begin, the people of the DRC suffered for decades under the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko who ruled the DRC, which he renamed Zaire, from 1965 to 1997. Since then, the path to stable democracy has been rocky at times, but it has continued. It is the second largest country in Africa with more than 75 million people. While violence and conflict rages in the eastern DRC, it will be impossible to bring stability to the region.

The Congolese are some of the poorest people in the world with the second lowest nominal GDP per capita. However, it is considered by many to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world based on its untapped natural resources estimated in excess of US $24 trillion It also posses 30% of the world’s diamond reserves and 70% of the world’s coltan.

When it gained independence in 1960, it was the second most industrialized country in Africa – behind South Africa. Now, 53 years later, it is one of the poorest. And since the First and Second Congo Wars began in 1996, the country’s revenue has tumbled, debt has risen astronomically and 5 million people have died from war and famine. Two thirds of the DRC’s population now struggle from malnutrition.

It was definitely time for the international community to take action – and they did. The U.N. and the U.S. congress led the way. Sadly, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable challenged the SEC’s Final Rule in federal court saying it did not achieve its goal, it was too onerous, there was no de minimis exception and that it even violated the corporations’ freedom of speech. However, the court saw it the other way, the right way, the reasoned and humane way.

Human rights and anti-terrorism litigation is an important tool for the protection of many people who otherwise would never see justice. I am proud to have been a part of this.