Coltan, the Congo and Your Cell Phone

26 Pages Posted: 13 Apr 2011

See all articles by Ewan Sutherland

Ewan Sutherland

University of the Witwatersrand, LINK Centre

Date Written: April 11, 2011


Civil wars often concern and are frequently extended by the presence of natural resources (e.g., diamonds in Sierra Leone). Control over the Coltan ores in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has helped to fund domestic militia and foreign armies, prolonging the war crimes and human rights abuses committed there over many years.

From Coltan ores are extracted the metals tantalum and niobium which have several uses in advanced technology products, notably in high density capacitors used in cameras, mobile phones and other compact electronic devices. One of the principal sources of Coltan has been the DRC.

The United Nations Security Council has supported peace-making efforts in DRC. It has also sought to eliminate the flow of funds to militia groups through their sale of Coltan ores or “taxes” imposed on such sales.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has held that removal of Coltan ores by an occupying foreign army is looting and a war crime.

The OECD has developed guidelines for the due diligence which multi-national corporations should use to ensure the provenance of minerals and metals that might originate from the DRC. This supports the UN in its efforts to suppress funding for groups engaged in war crimes and human rights abuses.

The USA has legislated to require due diligence, auditing and public reporting of the use of such minerals. Its Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has developed the detailed reporting requirements for users of possible “conflict minerals”.

Other jurisdictions, including the European Union (EU), are under pressure to follow this example.

Industry groups have established voluntary procedures that complement the OECD guidelines in certifying the source of metals in final products.

While much progress has been made, there is still considerable work required to ensure the traceability of ores, both in terms of geochemistry and in audited documentation.

Keywords: War crimes, Human rights abuses, Minerals, Computers, Mobile phones

JEL Classification: l96, l61, l63, I3, K22

Suggested Citation

Sutherland, Ewan, Coltan, the Congo and Your Cell Phone (April 11, 2011). Available at SSRN: or

Ewan Sutherland (Contact Author)

University of the Witwatersrand, LINK Centre ( email )

1 Jan Smuts Avenue
Johannesburg, Gauteng 2000
South Africa


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