Seem pretty unrelated? Sadly, they are not. Many of your electronics, like your smartphone, have micro-processing chips that require precious metals, such as gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten. These resources have been termed ‘conflict minerals’, as they lie at the center of mineral resource exploitation and human rights violation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Therefore, your electronics and the precious metals that they require are inextricably linked to the atrocities that take place in the Congo.
The latest issue of National Geographic features heart-wrenching photos depicting the effects of mining for conflict minerals in Congo, with an accompanying article describing the relationship of the international technology trade and the continuation of violence in the DRC. The mining of conflict minerals is troublesome because it can directly fund armed groups and also engenders conflict between the government and rebel forces. The human rights violations in Eastern Congo, as a result of these conflicts, are indescribable: there have been reports of rampant sexual violence and the area has been dubbed one of the most dangerous places to be a woman. This suggests a strong link between the profitability of the mining of conflict minerals and human rights violations, a link that has to be broken.
The issue is not new; there has been previous media coverage of the movement towards conflict-free technologies. As early as 2010, Nicholas Kristof wrote a moving op-ed in the New York Times, lauding the grass-roots movements that protested for a promise for conflict-free technologies. Since 2011, the Enough Project has undertaken an initiative to score technology companies according to their efforts to trace the origin of the minerals used in their products and to proactively implement measures towards clean trade in Congo. In 2012, Intel and HP became industry leaders on this scale; but some still lag behind, such as HTC and Nintendo who have not made any motion towards exploring clean trade.
However, how much do these scores affect the consumer’s choice? There seems to be a disconnect between such rankings and consumer awareness. In 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act was signed into law. Section 1502 of the law requires that American companies audit their supply chains to ensure that the raw materials being used are conflict-free. Additionally, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) established reporting regulations for material sourcing. These regulations include yearly reports to the SEC regarding supply chains. There are several exceptions, such as companies that have no oversight on manufacturing or those that source the materials from a stable region. These ratings and the Act are effective in exposing the issue of conflict materials; however, there needs to be more public awareness.
Early evidence suggests that these measures are having an effect: there has been growth of ‘clean mining’ in Eastern Congo. These ‘green mines’ are often supported by companies as opposed to militias and offer a more viable and humane alternative to those operated by rebel groups. Although they are still few in number, they offer greater pay and community support. By moving human capital and business away from rebel-controlled mines, they prevent the funding of further human rights violations.
However, the fact remains that while we, as consumers, often actively pursue ‘clean’ or ‘green’ or ‘free-trade’ products in other sectors, we remain woefully unaware of our options when purchasing electronics. Perhaps companies need to develop an organic, conflict-free version of electronics and proudly endorse such products. For example, the launch of the new iPhones could have been an optimal time for Apple to emphasize its dedication to conflict-free minerals. In the midst of globalization, we cannot forget the implications that our choices, such as the purchase of a gaming system or camera, can have on the lives of others around the world.