Ethics Forum

University of Edinburgh

What should the University do about conflict minerals?

The University is currently reviewing its policy on the use of minerals from conflict zones in its supply chains. Minerals such as tin, gold, and tungsten are extracted in conflict zones, and proceeds from their sale are used to finance ongoing fighting. However, in many cases the minerals are purchased in processed forms, and their origins are difficult to trace. What role should universities play in stopping the trade in conflict minerals? How far down the supply chain can universities be expected to go?

Watch a video of the debate held on February 26th, 2015 or have your say in the comments section.


Countries at the heart of the conflict minerals crisis. (Map by Dan Talsky, Journaltimes.com)

Countries at the heart of the conflict minerals crisis. (Map by Dan Talsky, Journaltimes.com)

Debate continues…

Government action on the issue has been varied: the UK Government’s stance on conflict minerals cites work with the World Bank to tighten regulation of the Congo’s minerals sector. Meanwhile, the Dodd-Frank financial reform law passed by US Congress 2010 requires disclosure of use of conflict minerals, and has been criticised as misleading and harmful in Foreign Policy’s How Dodd-Frank is Failing Congo.


As it happened

On February 26th we hosted a debate to explore the ethics of supply chains and procurement, use of minerals from conflict zones, and constructive approaches to improving livelihoods and reducing conflict in these areas. Speakers agreed that the challenges of implementing an ethical stance on conflict minerals are multiple and complex, but each shared insights on directions for change that are possible both through educational institutions and as individual consumers. The event was chaired by Michelle H Brown (Head of Programmes, Department of Social Responsibility and Sustainability).

Jana Hönke (Lecturer in International Relations, University of Edinburgh) pointed to the at times simplistic way that the narrative about conflict minerals has been framed, both by media and advocacy groups and academics. For example, focusing the debate on the Democratic Republic of Congo has led to stigma and embargoes that have an unintended effect of harming small-scale businesses in the region. In contrast, multinational mining corporations are better equipped to demonstrate “clean” credentials. She advocated local participation in solutions on the ground, in order to minimise the potential harms of intervention. Further, she suggested that there is no easy way for Edinburgh University to deal with conflict minerals. Engaging in public debate and deliberation is crucial to generating a nuanced understanding of the problem, and an appropriate contribution to the solution.

Martin Murray (Branch Chair, Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply) described the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply’s (CIPS) programme of certification for procurement professionals, and the pivotal role that such professionals play in large corporations. A cornerstone of the CIPS Code of Conduct is the “eradication of unethical business practices,” and as such any professional with a diploma or certificate from the institute receives training on the problem of conflict minerals in supply chains. He underlined the complexity of the supply chains that are dealt with at the corporate level, and the importance of ensuring that professionals are qualified to trace the origins of minerals used, and to provide workable solutions.

David Brown (Head of Supply Chain, Business Stream; previously Head of Procurement, Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games) identified key sections in the Commonwealth Games Charter promoting respect for human rights, democracy, and international peace and security. These sections were challenging to operationalise and implement, and given the resource demands of the Games it required balancing between at times competing considerations of acquiring enough of a good for the right price and ensuring that no conflict minerals were used at any stage of its production. He pointed to the inevitable caveats that well-intentioned businesses include in codes of conduct, claiming commitment to ethical standards but only provided that these are consistent with the growth of the company. He suggested that this dilutes the necessary commitments to ethical procurement, and that auditing processes with clear and transparent consequences may be required to generate change.

Bandi Mbubi (Founder and Director of Congo Calling) began by describing the process by which the Democratic Republic of the Congo came to be at the heart of the conflict mineral debate, with a scale of suffering and death due to ongoing war that is unparalleled. As much of the mining in the Congo is industrial-scale, armed groups fight for control of the mines as a resource and fuel for continued conflict. He argued that in most cases the armed groups responsible for war crimes and mass deaths are known to be benefiting from conflict minerals, and we must ask ourselves what role we are playing in sustaining this in the West.

Mr Mbubi urged consumers to use the power they have to vote with their wallets. While few companies sell products with perfectly ethical credentials, we should choose to purchase from companies that have demonstrated they are on a journey towards improving their supply chains. Most importantly, the origins of the minerals used in electronics should be a live consideration whenever we make purchases, as this is the minimum we owe to people suffering at the hands of armed groups benefiting from conflict minerals.

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This entry was posted on January 22, 2015 by .
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