The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (.pdf), signed into law by President Obama on July 21, contains provisions requiring publicly traded companies that utilize certain "conflict minerals" to report regarding whether their products are “conflict free” – meaning that they should report on any due diligence steps taken to demonstrate that their products are not fueling conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo ("DRC"). The legislation does not prohibit companies from using minerals from conflict areas. Rather, it relies on the reputational effects of public reporting to push companies to rely on conflict free sources. Human rights organizations believe that the sale of conflict minerals — tantalum (coltan), cassiterite (tin), wolframite (tungsten), and gold – helps armed groups fund the purchase of weapons and the continuation of hostilities in the DRC.
For over a year, civil society has pushed the U.S. Congress to implement these provisions (.pdf) as an attempt to address the ongoing conflict in the eastern DRC, and have used a variety of means, including viral videos, to focus the public’s attention on this issue.
The minerals in question are commonly utilized in a variety of commercial products, such as automobiles, cellular phones, and airplane engines. The legislation therefore affects a large spectrum of industries, including mining, automotive, aerospace, and jewelry. The aim of the legislation is not to ban the use of these minerals if they originate from the DRC, but rather to ensure that the minerals do not come from conflict areas of the DRC or otherwise help fund the conflict. Given the due diligence that may be necessary to decisively demonstrate that products are conflict free, some have argued that the legislation will unintentionally create a de facto ban on minerals from the DRC and neighboring countries. On the other hand, if the SEC provides appropriate guidance, the legislation is likely to offer a clearer path for companies to demonstrate that they are not supporting conflict in the DRC.
Requirements imposed by the legislation include:
- A company that uses conflict minerals must produce an annual disclosure to the Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") if the minerals are "necessary to the functionality or production of a product" manufactured by the company. The company must also report on its public website.
- The annual disclosure must state whether the conflict minerals originated in the DRC or an adjoining country (including Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia).
- If the minerals used by a company originate in the DRC or an adjoining country, the company must report on the due diligence measures that it took regarding the source and chain of custody of those minerals. These measures are expected to include an audit by an independent professional audit company.
- Companies must also submit a description of any products manufactured by the company that are not "DRC conflict free." Products are conflict free if they do not contain minerals that directly or indirectly finance or benefit armed groups in the DRC or an adjoining country. Products are considered to benefit such groups if they come from areas where armed groups physically control mines or force civilians to mine, transport, or sell conflict minerals; tax, extort, or control any part of trade routes for the minerals up to the point of export; or tax, extort, or control trading facilities, in whole or in part.
Unfortunately, many key aspects of the legislation remain uncertain at this time. It is not clear exactly which companies will be required to produce reports. In addition, it is not clear whether the information must be in companies’ 10-Ks or can be contained in other reports, although it is likely that penalties associated with fraud or deceit in SEC reporting will apply. Finally, it is not certain what it means for a mineral to be "necessary to the functionality or production of a product.” The SEC’s 270-day rulemaking process should provide greater clarity for many companies.
The legislation is likely to affect all levels of the supply chain for these minerals. At this time, companies that utilize the named minerals should consider how they will demonstrate that they conducted due diligence to ensure that the mines from which their minerals come, as well as the routes and trading depots through which the minerals came, are conflict free. For end-user companies, this will mean ensuring, at a minimum, that smelters have robust due diligence processes on the ground and providing for an independent audit of those due diligence processes.
The legislation allows the U.S. State Department to expand the list of minerals that fuel conflict in the DRC, which would potentially affect a larger number of companies. The legislation currently covers the minerals that human rights organizations believe are primarily funding the conflict, so the expansion of the list seems unlikely unless a new mineral begins to be sourced from the eastern DRC in significant quantities.
Under the legislation, the Department of Commerce can designate specific independent private sector auditors and due diligence processes as “unreliable.” If, in its reporting, a company relies on a determination of an independent audit or other due diligence process that is deemed unreliable, the report does not satisfy the SEC reporting requirement. Therefore, it is particularly important that due diligence processes are robust.