Is Your Cell Phone Fueling Civil War in Congo?

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Congolese minerals may be making their way into U.S. consumer electronics, fueling a war that has become the most violent since World War Two. But some U.S. legislators are trying to change that.

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Reuters

Pick up any household electronic -- a phone, a remote, or a laptop -- and it could contain minerals mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country where armed rebel groups connected with crimes of rape and murder profit from trade of these minerals.

Tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold mined in the eastern part of the DRC are said to finance the armed rebel groups that contribute to the ongoing violence in the country.

Congo's second war officially ended in 2003 when a transitional government took over after the signing of peace agreements between African nations. But the fighting still persists. The DRC army has launched several attacks on the civilian population and armed rebel groups have risen up to fight against them. Tensions between the two factions are perpetuated by the profits to be made from the mining industry.

According to a study released by the International Rescue Committee in 2008, the war in the DRC and its aftermath is the deadliest conflict since World War II. An estimated 5.4 million people have been killed in the country since 1998 and 45,000 deaths occur each month--a loss equivalent to the entire population of Colorado.

Robert Hormats, U.S. Under Secretary of State for economic, energy, and agriculture affairs, said on a panel June 20 that the debate surrounding conflict minerals is "one of the most significant moral issues of our time."

The DRC supplies dozens of electronics companies around the word with the minerals needed to manufacture products like iPhones and video games. The DRC is the fifth largest supplier of tin ore, and according to a U.S. Geological Survey, about 10 percent of tungsten--the mineral used to make cell phones vibrate--is imported to the United States.

"It really is a global problem," said Tim Mohin, director of corporate responsibility, Advanced Micro Devices--a company that develops computer processors for commercial and consumer markets. "We have global supply chains that affect every nation, every product that you buy."

In the past, several companies claimed they used conflict-free minerals. But experts say it would have been nearly impossible to track supply chains without the implementation of a systemized auditing system like the one now required by the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

"What part of the solution has to be is to come up with an incentive system so that when companies do the right thing, when they work with the Congo to develop a free trade, fair trade system in the Congo, that they are rewarded," Mohin said.

In July of 2010, President Obama signed the Dodd-Frank Act, requiring U.S.-listed companies to disclose whether the minerals used in their products were extracted in the DRC or a neighboring country.

But critics of the legislation argue that there is still no real way to determine whether the minerals used in the products are clean because they switch hands too often on the way to the market.

Leaders from the Enough Project, a nonprofit focusing on the areas affected by the Lord's Resistance Army, want a clearer, more defined approach to combating the use of conflict minerals.

Their solution: a certification system that would force governments to use an agreed-upon standard when trading the minerals.

"We have global supply chains that affect every nation, every product that you buy"

Several certification systems already exist throughout the world. The Kimberly Process certifies the origin of rough diamonds from areas that have conflict-free diamond production. The process aims to prevent "blood diamonds." Fair Trade assures a consumer that the producers of a product get a fair price and fair labor conditions.

DRC mine owners have already begun to see the affects of increased regulation. On May 23, Bloomberg reported that sales of tin ore from the DRC's North Kivu province fell more than 90 percent in the month of April.

"The private sector has been obliged to lay off people because they are not allowed to export," Frida Mitifu, the DRC ambassador to the United States, said. "We really need to find a quick solution otherwise this God-given potential that God put in the DRC might truly turn into some kind of curse."

Hormats insists the goal is not to shut down the mines entirely.

"Our goal is accountability," he said. "We want to make sure it is legitimate trade."

Activists and U.S. politicians are pressuring the Obama administration to deal with the increasingly dangerous situation. Sixteen senators recently requested President Obama send a special envoy to the region.

Mohin is hopeful.

"President Obama himself, when he was Senator Obama, actually sponsored a bill that addressed these very issues so we know that he cares deeply about this. I think it's just a matter of time until he takes leadership," he said.

Gender-based violence in DRC

The consumer protection act also requires the U.S. Comptroller General to submit to Congress a report that includes "an assessment of the rate of sexual and gender-based violence in war-torn areas of the DRC and adjoining countries." No known report has been released to the public, but leaders of the Enough Project claim gender-based violence is enabled by the mineral industry because armed groups use rape to "intimidate and control local populations."

The United Nations Population Fund reported that 15,996 new cases of sexual violence were recorded in 2008 in the DRC. There were 4,820 new cases in the North Kivu province alone and 65 percent of the victims of the sexual violence were children, most of them adolescent girls.

More recently, an estimated 242 women were raped in a rebel attack near the mining town of Walikale in North Kivu province, east DRC, between July 30 and August 2, 2010. The attackers were reportedly members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda.

Despite the statistics, Mitifu said rape "is not a part of the Congolese culture" but is a result of the war.

"[The rapes] are indirectly connected to what is going on in the mining industry," she said. "The minerals have been the driving force of the war in the Eastern Congo...these armed groups have basically been self-financing their wars. If there is no war, there is no rape."

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Erin Banco is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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