By Alex Whiting
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The first British university to adopt a policy aimed at cutting the use of conflict minerals in the products it buys, said on Tuesday it hopes to form a network of like-minded universities that together would combat the issue in their supply chains.
With some 50,000 staff and students and an annual turnover of 850 million pounds ($1.2 billion), the University of Edinburgh is a major buyer of computers and other electronic goods.
Campaigners have long raised concerns that such goods use minerals like tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold, which have in some cases been used to prolong conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere.
Speaking on the day European legislators met to negotiate new regulations on the issue, a spokesman from the University of Edinburgh said he hoped its policy of questioning suppliers on the origins of their goods would set an example for others.
"Many people would be horrified to know that they may be inadvertently supporting war lords," the director of social responsibility and sustainability, Dave Gorman, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Part of the thinking behind having a policy rather than simply working away quietly, is to try and raise the level of awareness and hopefully bring more on board."
The university hopes to eventually impact major British supply contracts by influencing those which are negotiated jointly with other British universities.
"Our hope is ... that by starting to declare our colors and ask some questions, we can influence these much larger contracts of which we're just a part," Gorman said.
"We're not naive, this isn't a magic solution, this is the start of a process we think that will have some influence over time," he added.
The university's policy has been welcomed by campaigners on the issue.
"It's really valuable to have that kind of leadership, and it's especially great that it's an academic institution," said Michael Gibb, campaign leader on conflict resources at Global Witness.
But he added that such moves by institutions alone are not enough and European legislation was needed to force companies to carry out due diligence on their supply chains.
"The longer it's the ... niche interest of a few, the harder it's going to be for them to do it, because they're not going to be able to count on ... cooperation from other parts of the chain," Gibb said.
"The more transparent and open the whole supply chain is, the easier it is for every link in the chain to do this."
European legislators are in the process of negotiating new regulations on the issue, but it is not yet clear whether they will be mandatory or voluntary, Gibb said.
In the United States, companies by law have to try to establish the origin of four metals often used by rebel groups in the area to finance their activities.
The legislation is having a big impact on both U.S. companies and on European companies supplying products to the United States, said Gibb.
"This is about conflict financing and very serious human rights abuses, it's not the kind of thing that European companies or their investors or their consumers should want any part of," he said.
"It's time (for Europe) to move on to something mandatory that will make this part of doing business as usual instead of the exception, or the niche interest of a few responsible companies," he added.
($1 = 0.7038 pounds)
(Reporting by Alex Whiting, Editing by Katie Nguyen.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)