Is Your Cell Phone Fueling Civil War in Congo?

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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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.

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Erin Banco is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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