The economy of conflict

What do the micro-chips in our cellphones have to do with the recently reported rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo(DRC)? Apparently,quite a bit. The perpetrators of the rapes get much of their funds from the extraction and illicit trade of minerals used in technology products worldwide, including cellphones, laptops, and camcorders.

Rep. James McDermott, D-WA, hopes to cut this funding with HR 4128, the Conflict Minerals Trade Act. The bill, which was introduced last November and has 56 co-sponsors, is still in committee. It is not going to make the first, or even last, paragraph of anyone’s campaign speech this fall. But HR4128 merits exposure because it reflects the kind of thorough thinking required to unmake a brutal conflict.

The DRC is a vast country with immense economic resources that has been at the center of what the BBC says “could be Africa’s world war.” Five years of fighting between the government and rebel forces has claimed millions of lives. Despite a 2003 peace treaty, the country remains insecure, particularly the eastern region. Sexual violence and rape are tools of combat used by all sides. Earlier this week, the UN reported that as many as 500 women and girls, some as young as seven, were raped during July and August.

According to the United Nations Group of Experts on the DRC, armed groups in the country’s eastern region (the men doing the raping) are profiting greatly from the trade of columbite-tantalite (coltan), cassiterite, wolframite, and gold. HR 4128 seeks to identify and sanction, if possible, all involved in the extraction, trade, and processing of these “conflict minerals.”

Companies that create and sell products that include columbite-tantalite (coltran), cassiterite, wolfamite and their derivatives and gold have the ability to influence the situation in the DRC by ensuring that their supplies do not use raw materials that
(i)tdirectly finance armed conflict
(ii)tresult in labor or human rights violations
(iii)tdamage the environment.

The 29-page bill recommends a number of strategies including:

  • producing and publicizing a “Congo Conflict Minerals Map” that identifies mineral-rich zones under control of armed groups, and tagging mines and minerals from those regions

  • identifying and listing commercial goods likely to contain “conflict minerals” I can imagine the label on such a product. Warning: The minerals used in this laptop might have funded militias who rape Congolese women and girls.

  • auditing processing plants to certify if they are “conflict mineral free”

Congressman McDermott is not the only one thinking holistically. The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative have called the use of “mined commodities that support conflict in such countries as the DRC” by the information, communication, and technology industry “unacceptable.”

The computer company Dell, an EICC member, is encouraging an “industry dialogue” on how to track minerals from conflict zones. In its statement of support for the Conflict Minerals Trade Act, Dell wrote:

“Minerals such as tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold are used in numerous products including those in the aerospace, automotive, electronics and jewelry industries. These minerals are extracted from only a few locations in the world, for example, the DRC. In our industry the mining of these minerals takes many stages before a final product is assembled, making it difficult if not impossible to trace the minerals’ origins. It is easy for entire industries to abstain from thinking this is their problem because of the indirect nature of the minerals. But that is not the thinking we encourage of socially and environmentally responsible organizations. Rather, we must use our collective knowledge and resources to ensure that we cooperate and eradicate human rights violations in the DRC and that no stage of our supply chain contributes to these atrocities.

Changing the situation in the DRC will take much more than a bill or impressive corporate statements. But it is heartening to know there are people identifying the structural supports of violence, and conversely, what must be done to build the peace. It’s time to start asking about the minerals in our cellphones and laptops.

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