ST. PETERSBURG — City Council member Steve Kornell had heard of blood diamonds. The issue of "conflict minerals," though, was new.
That the minerals help to finance armed groups that perpetuate sexual violence against girls and women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the rape capital of the world, according to a U.N. official — galvanized Kornell into action.
He is proposing that St. Petersburg adopt a resolution to avoid products containing conflict minerals — specifically tin, tungsten and tantalum derived from them, and gold — mined in the war-torn Central African nation.
If Kornell's effort is successful, the city would shun cell phones, laptops and other electronic devices manufactured with the minerals advocates say help instigate mass rape and slaughter of countless civilians.
"This is something I believe in very deeply,'' he said. "I see it as a human issue, not a political issue. I know this is the right thing to do."
Students from Eckerd College and a representative from the Enough Project, a national organization that works to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity, gave a presentation about the issue during a recent council meeting.
"The reaction was a little mixed,'' Kornell said, but a majority of his colleagues voted to send the matter to the city's Budget, Finance and Taxation Committee for further discussion.
A resolution addressing conflict minerals could make St. Petersburg only the second city in the nation to take up the concern. In April, Pittsburgh passed a resolution that, among other things, called on electronic companies to take steps to remove conflict minerals from their supply chain.
The cause also is gaining traction in California, where a senate committee has approved a measure that would deny companies state procurement contracts for failing to comply with federal regulations regarding conflict minerals.
The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, signed into law last summer, includes a provision requiring companies whose products contain gold, tin, tungsten or tantalum to disclose whether they originate in Congo or neighboring countries.
"If they do, then they have to spell out the steps they're going to take to ensure that their supply chains are not funding the conflict,'' said Matt Brown, a spokesman for the Enough Project.
As yet, regulations governing the law have not been finalized by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Advocates liken the campaign to ban conflict minerals to efforts such as those that brought attention to the issue of blood diamonds — also involving human rights abuses — and calls for divestment from apartheid-era South Africa.
Kornell said he became aware of the conflict minerals issue attending a talk by John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project.
"As I started looking into it, I found out about the federal requirement and in talking to John, I said, we really should make that a part of our policy,'' he said.
"It's a very simple process to piggy back on what the federal government has done. I think the next logical step is for the city of St. Petersburg, if (companies) say, no, we are not complying, we should not purchase their products.''
Kornell has a supporter in council member Karl Nurse.
"I think we vote with our wallet every day and so my thought is how we spend money really reflects our values,'' Nurse said.
"There are a lot of details to be worked out, clearly. If we have the ability along with other governments and universities to make it more difficult to finance internal wars and the violence that surrounds it, then we should take that opportunity.''
Pittsburgh City Council member Douglas Shields, the main sponsor of that city's conflict minerals resolution, has a similar philosophy.
"This is about raising awareness and I think, as human beings, we have an obligation about these things,'' he said.
Last year, the Enough Project released a report ranking 21 major electronics companies in five categories, including the tracing and auditing of conflict minerals — the 3Ts and gold in activists' parlance — in their products and their legislative support.
"Our objective is to encourage companies at the top of the minerals supply chain to use their buying power to influence their suppliers, exerting pressure down the supply chain,'' stated the report, "Getting to Conflict Free: Assessing Corporate Action on Conflict Minerals."
Tracing the minerals that end up in electronics could be complex. Conflict minerals are smuggled from eastern Congo to neighboring countries and moved to Asia, where they can be smelted with ores from other countries before being turned into essential components for electronic products such as cell phones and laptops.
"We're not asking people to boycott electronics, just to be mindful that the minerals that go into their electronics, a lot of those minerals come from Congo and a lot of those minerals are being used to fund mass rapes and mass atrocities,'' Brown said.
According to the Enough Project report, companies making the most progress toward conflict-free minerals are HP, Intel, Motorola, Nokia, Microsoft and Dell.
"I really think as the companies become more educated on this issue they will comply,'' Kornell said.
"I don't fault anybody for not being aware, because I myself was not aware.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.