Killer Gadgets: Financing the War in the Congo by Electronic Device

July 20th, 2010

Correction: This article incorrectly refers to an amendment relating to the use of conflict minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the Energy Security Through Transparency ammendment (ESTT).  The amendment should accurately be referred to as the Congo Amendment.  Both the Congo amendment and the ESTT amendment deal with transparency in the extractive industries, and both amendments were passed into law as part of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

Lately, the oil industry has been getting a lot of attention. The BP oil spill has been a 24-hour news cycle dream: live streaming video of the gushing well dominated CNN’s stream for more than 80 days. Even now, with the oil-well temporarily capped, the media continues to focus on the petroleum industry. Talk of the Energy Security through Transparency Act (ESTT), which was tucked into the financial reform bill, has largely centered on the impact that the legislation will have on the extractive practices of the industry.

Meanwhile, however, another storm—a movement calling on companies to stop using “conflict minerals”—has gained prominence. A recent story in Newsweek looks at how the ESTT will impact this particular (and devastating) extractive industry.

“Conflict minerals,” like blood or conflict diamonds, help fund civil war and violent militias, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mining for these rare metals leads to rape, murder, and other terrible crimes. Yet, it also produces cameras, computers, music players and cell phones.

These minerals—tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold—are used by the 21 major electronics companies, which include Apple, Canon, Dell, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, Panasonic, Research in Motion (Blackberry), Samsung and more. They are “essential for our wired lifestyle.” Tin is used in circuit boards, and you can thank tungsten every time your phone vibrates with an incoming message or call.

More than 5.4 million people have died in the Congo in the past 12 years, and the number keeps climbing. However, the connection between our have-to-have gadgets and the world’s deadliest war since World War II is slowly emerging in the public discourse. Many international organizations, in particular the Enough Project, are working to raise awareness. Indeed, big names such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Angelina Jolie, Sheryl Crow, Julianne Moore and Nicole Richie have all championed this cause.

A number of technology companies, including Hewlett-Packard (HP), have heeded consumers’ cries for conflict-free sourcing. HP states, “While all four [conflict] metals are used by many other industries and are also sourced from regions other than the DRC, HP considers it unacceptable that the sourcing of metals eventually incorporated into our products could be contributing to armed conflict.”

Unfortunately, unlike HP, many companies have failed to take action against sourcing conflict minerals, and recent congressional attempts to ban the use of conflict minerals have stalled. In April 2009, Senator Samuel Brownback (R-KS) introduced the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009, which would have required electronics companies to verify and disclose the sources of their tin, tantalum and tungsten. The legislation did not make it out of committee.

However, now, with the ESTT heading to President Obama’s desk, opponents of conflict sourced minerals have a reason to celebrate. The Act requires all companies registered with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to disclose where they source minerals. “Companies must provide independently audited reports showing what they’ve done to avoid financing armed conflict—such as citing documentation between the African source country and the Asian processor. Failure to cooperate or the filing of a false report could result in court sanctions,” Newsweek reports.

The new requirements, and the publicity surrounding them, will force companies to more closely examine from where they are getting their materials, while increasing the prominence of this devastating practice among consumers. Now, let’s hope that other governments follow the lead of the United States.

Watch a spoof of the popular Apple commercials by Raise Hope for Congo:

Written by Kelley Brescia

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