Gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum are all minerals that can be found in most modern electronic devices, including your phone, computer, gaming system and portable music player. Another thing they have in common is that there are all ‘conflict minerals’. Most of us are aware of the miserable conditions in factories that assemble these electronics, but the majority of us are uninformed about where the parts are coming from, and where they end up after use.
In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, these minerals have longed financed and fueled intrastate violence and conflicts, as armed groups trade these minerals to fund their activities. Despite international efforts in legislating these activities, companies insatiable request for these minerals are supplied in the highly competitive market of our electronic devices. But not all companies are aware of the minerals origin, as they’re shipped around the world for refinement after being smuggled out of the country.
For the last two decades Congo has experienced two highly deadly wars, which resulted in the death of 5.4 million people. It’s been the bloodiest conflict since the Second World War, and prolonged between 1996 and 2003, exempt from the one year break in 1997. The violence caused high damage to infrastructure, psychical and psychological harm to its citizens, resulting in human rights abuses on a mass scale. Rape as a weapon of war, mass murder and large-scale plunder has caused widespread displacement of people, something that has not managed to restore itself. For the people who have not been subject to violence, the everyday life of poverty, famine and disease are still persistent in the community.
While the Second Congo War, or African World War, was declared over in 2003, the mineral resourceful eastern parts of Congo are still insecure and fighting still persists. The reasons for this unrest is partly political. Hutu refugees from the Rwandan genocide in 1994 living in Congo have caused constraint between Kinshasa and the Rwandan government. The proxy war came to an end when the Congo government joined forces with Rwanda in 2008, in order to combat the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Despite the support from United Nation peacekeepers, they failed to defeat the abusive FDLR rebels, which until today wreaks havoc in eastern Congo. The high international demand for the country’s national resources has also resulted in the fighting, as many small parties seek to take control due to the financial incentives. The profit from sales have not reached the average citizens and today it’s citizens are among the poorest in the world, despite being considered the richest in terms of its natural resources.
The violence in Congo has not gone unnoticed by the international community. The peacekeeping force MONUC, the longest and largest United Nation mission to date, is delegated to protect Congo’s civilians, but is, however, unable to halt rebel attacks. While the UN Security Council and the international community has repeatedly demanded accountability for war crimes committed in Congo, little action has been done in order to stop attacks or prevent the plundering of natural resources. After the UN panel in 2002 publicly exclaimed impetus of the Congo’s armed groups fighting and the minerals that were traded, the link between the two became clear. They also pointed out 85 companies involved in the conflict mineral trade. The recommended sanctions were, however, inactivated due to intense lobbying by member states. The International Criminal Court (ICC) attempted similar strategies in 2003, when they warned multi-national companies of prosecution if found guilty of abetting war crimes. Unfortunately, the prosecutions were never followed up, and only a handful of people have been charged in Congo.
It took until 2010, when the US passed a law in Congress, that the rebel’s financial sources were attacked. The law forced all publicly listed US companies to declare to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) whether any of its purchases from armed groups in Congo contained the four minerals; gold, tantalum, tin, or tungsten. The law also requires buyers to audit whether conflict minerals were bought in South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Malawi, Zambia, Angola and Central African Republic. If this is the case, the buyers are required to independently research and demonstrate with which group the trade was conducted. If the company fails to provide such inspections they will be fined by the SEC. Trading with armed groups is not banned per se, but will draw bad publicity as companies will be associated with these groups. While the legislation seemed promising, businesses complain they are unable to trace minerals in today’s globalised world through its intermediaries. There is currently a conflict between the giant electronic producers and pressure groups on whether it is possible for the smelters, in particular, to ensure the end of processing of conflict minerals.
Another problem with this legislation is the consequences for the ten million Congolese, who depends on the mining for their livelihood, if the demand for their minerals would stop. The incentive to trade with “clean” mines, mines not controlled by armed groups, would then increase. In clean mines, miners would work in decent conditions and the profit from breaking minerals would end up towards benefiting the community instead of warlords. The problem is that such mines in eastern Congo are notably hard to find. The pressure to maintain the current standards can also be felt from neighbouring countries Burundi, Uganda and Rwanda. They are profiting from the smuggled minerals and are unwilling to see change. For the US law and other future legislations to be successfully enforced, there need to be collective efforts from the US, it’s allies, Congo and its neighbouring countries.
But how can you and I, as consumers of these products, make a difference when purchasing a new electric device? Many pressure groups wish to create situations where consumers, just like when we choose to buy organic or fair trade products, can select to shop conflict-free electronics. In 2012, the non-profit organisation Enough Project, ranked companies efforts towards using conflict-free minerals in their products. These indicators seek to help consumers make smart choices when purchasing electronic devices or jewellery, as they help consumers understand what actions companies are taking towards clean minerals trade. As for you, next time you purchase a new cell phone or computer, ask whether they contain conflict minerals. As companies realise there is a public concern regarding the origin of their subcomponents, new policies and programs will be enabled to answer to such demand.
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