It’s nearly impossible for many of us to imagine going even one day without our cell phones, laptops, mp3 players, or a myriad of other gadgets that have come to play such a crucial role in our daily lives. We see people lining up in front of Apple stores for hours in order to get the new iPhone, admiring its sleek new design and imagining all the fancy new functions it will be able to perform. Where the raw material for these devices comes from is probably the last thing on most consumers’ minds. But the truth behind the conflict minerals that too often go into our gadgets is “one of the fundamental moral issues of our time,” according to Robert D. Hormats.
Hormats, the under secretary of state for economic, energy, and agricultural affairs, was the keynote speaker at a panel discussion put on by the Enough Action Fund that focused on how to end the conflict minerals trade that has been so destructive for the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The panel pushed for a solution that “requires industry to trace where their sources are,” as Rep. Jim McDermott (D–WA) put it.
McDermott has championed legislation that would introduce transparency and accountability into mineral supply chains. He insisted that since such measures will save countless lives in the embattled regions of the eastern Congo, requiring companies to make sure their products are bloodless is “not too much to ask.”
DRC Ambassador Faida Midifu estimated that approximately 25 militias are operating in the Kivu region of her nation. Kivu has a high concentration of tantalum, tin, and tungsten, which are often mined using slave and child labor. Many of the militias that roam the eastern Congo terrorizing populations, pillaging villages, and raping women and girls illicitly trade these minerals in order to fund their operations. The gadgets we purchase here in the United States could effectively be helping to fund these militias in the eastern Congo.
The conflict that this illicit mineral trade funds is indeed ugly. Approximately 5.4 million people have died as a consequence of the conflict in DRC from 1998 to 2008. It is statistically the most deadly war since World War II. The high incidence of rape makes the DRC home to “the highest rates of violence against women and girls in the world,” as noted by John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Action Fund and panel moderator.
The truly disturbing part of this issue is the passivity and impunity that has surrounded this issue for so long. David Sullivan, Policy Manager at the Enough Action Fund, said “This is not news, we’ve known about this issue for a long time,” citing a report by a Congolese NGO from 1999 that exposed the illicit mineral trade’s effect on conflict in the DRC.
This issue has thankfully been gaining traction and attention in the public debate. New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof wrote about conflict minerals this past Saturday, praising Enough’s work in promoting awareness of this crucial issue. A YouTube video spoofing the Mac guy/PC guy television advertisements has received nearly 200,000 views within four days of being posted. Apple CEO Steve Jobs felt compelled recently to try to, rather unconvincingly, defend his company’s lax attention to whether or not their products contain conflict minerals. And colleges such as Stanford University have developed a policy on conflict minerals, paving the way for conflict-free campuses.
This rising attention, coupled with action in government and the private sector, will hopefully result in a break from the use of conflict minerals in the high-tech consumer products market from the use of conflict minerals. Electronics companies themselves have admitted that the cost of verifying their products to be conflict mineral-free would be merely one cent per product. This goal is difficult but achievable, and continuing to ignore it is simply not acceptable.
So next time you’re shopping for a smartphone, laptop, or other gadget, make it known that you want a product that can demonstrably be proven to be free of the conflict minerals that are wreaking violence on the people of the eastern Congo.