Our Cell Phones, Their War

Minerals in high-tech gadgets linked to Congo bloodshed.

Circuit Boards
Circuit Boards – Chris Jordan

An astonishing six million people are estimated to have died as a result of the conflict in the Congo – the largest war-related death toll since the Second World War. What is perhaps more appalling to citizens geographically removed from this conflict, is the fact that our consumption of seemingly indispensable high-tech gadgets – cell phones, mp3 players, laptops and video game systems – may have substantially contributed to this holocaust.

The conflict in the Congo is often described as “tribal,” but sober assessments by the United Nations, research organizations and the American government reveal something far more complex. The multimillion dollar trade of the Congo’s natural resources by foreign armies, rebels and militias has played an integral role in fueling the conflict – both by motivating armed groups to wage war, and by providing them with the cash to do so.

Here’s where the Western consumer comes in. Congolese minerals – after being dug up at gunpoint or taxed by brutal militias and rebels – often take a long international trip before ending up in our pockets and on our desks. Raw materials are traded in Central Africa, processed into electronic hardware in East Asia and eventually end up on the shelves of large electronics companies. As the final link in this supply chain, consumers are unintentionally funding the deadliest war in the world today – not something we equate with buying a new cell phone or laptop. John Prendergast, the co-chair of the Enough Project: an initiative to end genocide and crimes against humanity, notes “there are few other conflicts in the world where the link between our consumer appetites and mass human suffering is so direct.”

There are four main minerals that link our gadgets to the war. Tin is used as a solder on circuit boards of all electronic products; tantalum, or coltan, is used in capacitors that control the flow of electric current; tungsten makes our cell phones vibrate; and gold, a veteran conflict mineral, is used in many products for its resistance to corrosion.

By controlling these essential minerals within the global economy, rebels and militias – not to mention the governments that have directly supported them (including both the governments of Congo and Rwanda) – generate millions in profit, providing ample funds for armed groups to wage wars and terrorize civilians. Women and girls have disproportionately borne the horrific brunt of this conflict: the level and brutality of the sexual violence pandemic in Congo is unparalleled, affecting hundreds of thousands of women.

A grassroots campaign is developing to help end this war by focusing on its root causes. The targets of this growing movement are the powerful electronics companies that may unwittingly be using conflict minerals in their products. Letter campaigns and the threat of boycotting companies that refuse to investigate their supply chains are raising the level of pressure on markets already in decline as a result of the global recession.

On the political end, a bipartisan bill in the US Senate could require all US-registered companies selling products using tin, tantalum or tungsten to annually disclose to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) where the minerals were mined. If the company lists the Congo, or any of its neighbors, as the country of origin, then it would be obliged to name the specific mine.

A similar bill in Canada’s parliament is urgently needed to help end the war in Congo, which kills an estimated 45,000 Congolese every month. As engaged citizens we need to write to our members of Parliament, encouraging them to draft and support such a bill. Canada must show leadership by ensuring Canadians are not indirectly contributing to this bloodshed.

By building awareness of the relationship between tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold in our electronic goodies and the conflict in the Congo – and by translating that awareness into consumer and citizen pressure – we can play a key role in helping to end this holocaust in Central Africa. Without action, we will continue to sustain the Congo War … and an unprecedented amount of suffering and sexual violence.

Greg Queyranne, MA, is a Canadian researcher focusing on conflicts in Central Africa.