Is the mobile phone the new blood diamond?

Have you bought a new tablet, mobile phone or laptop recently? You may be a war criminal.

Ouimana Buiko Zawadi, a 35-year-old mother of four, is crowded with strangers in a shed in the Mugunga refugee camp, close to the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After her family escaped, a gruesome attack on their home in North Kivu province in the DRC, she told Al Jazeera that her children should rather die of hunger than of machetes.

North Kivu has experienced violence several times. The UN Joint Human Rights Office reported that 300 civilians were raped in August 2010 in the same region. But why do some of the DRC provinces attract so many horrific crimes?

Internecine fracas erupt to control precious minerals that the most developed countries, their citizens and industries need. These materials, such as tantalum, tin, gold or tungsten,  are essential for the manufacture of mobile phones, laptops and tablets, household electronics and entertainment items.

But instead of creating jobs in the country, the millions of devices sold every year finance the rival armed groups of the DRC. Child labour, slavery, rape and mass murder are the measure of the value of these export items. Hence their name: conflict minerals.

It might seem unlikely that Western consumers would voluntarily contribute to crimes against humanity in this way, but when it comes to giving up our 21st century technology and comfort it could be tempting to settle with a feelgood explanation about our insignificance and lack of impact in the grand scheme of industries and governments.

“Our purchase power can work its miracles when we use it for putting pressure on the merchants and manufacturers”

The explanatory power of these excuses are enormous, but are they true? Are we really too weak to influence the flow of events? And if we are not, can we take action for a safer world without compromising our Western privileges?

Consumer purchasing power can work miracles when used to pressurise merchants and manufacturers into monitoring their supply chains for conflict minerals. Lawmakers and international organisations are contributing to this effort when regulating the markets: the Dodd-Frank Act – better known as a response to the financial crisis of 2007 – also requires companies to run due diligence and report to the Securities and Exchange Commission if they are using conflict minerals. The OECD is also distributing meticulous guidelines on how to identify mines, trading houses, smelters and refineries that profit from conflict minerals.

Critics of these guidelines claim that these organisations will only be persuaded to give up their profits when they feel the hand of the law on their shoulder, rather than by any moral scruples. Yet some major brands have signed up for a change. Apple released its first Supplier Responsibility Report in February 2011 detailing how its supply chain is monitored and how its minerals and suppliers are traced. Other big brands such as Intel followed suit, with Motorola has invested in its own mine in Katanga Province (DRC) to keep its supply chain under control.

During the last few years the same spirit has filtered into other areas – in 2016, after the controversial Brexit vote and a surge in hate crime, the Stop Funding Hate campaign successfully persuaded major brands to drop their advertising in publications that promoted xenophobic ideas. And the fact that, in Dodd-Frank, a response to the financial meltdown has promoted ethical global business standards could signal a change in that sustainability and development have taken the place of growth at any cost.


This article was published in our Business Reporter Online: Logistics laid bare.
Read the full issue online now!

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