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They allow your Blackberry to vibrate and your iPod to play your favourite song. They are also fueling the bloodiest conflict since World War Two, spurring mass murder and rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The conflict minerals industry, worth millions, extracts tin, tantalum and tungsten (known as the 3 Ts) and gold. Rebel groups and militias within the Congolese army make money by taxing the mines and smuggling routes. They rape men and women as a tool of coercion.
Once the minerals are illegally smuggled out of the country, they head to smelters in Asia where they are mixed together with other minerals from around the world. This makes them difficult but not impossible to trace. They are eventually processed into components in the products Canadians know and love: laptops, digital cameras, game consoles and cell phones.
The source of minerals that will eventually become critical components of electronic devices in the West.
If reelected on May 2, Ottawa Centre NDP MP Paul Dewar plans to reintroduce Bill C-571 - the Trade in Conflict Minerals Act. The bill, supported by Etobicoke Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj, is a response to a UN’s proposal to end the trade of conflict minerals.
“No one wants to be an accomplice to this horrific gender violence,” Dewar said in an interview late last year. “It’s reasonable to ensure when I buy an iPhone that it is indeed rape-free and not supporting the conflict.”
According to a study by the International Rescue Committee, there have been more than five million war-related deaths in the Congo. Approximately 45,000 people continue to die each month.
Although the legislation passed its first reading last September, Bill C-571 died when the Governor General dissolved parliament in late March for the election. Dewar’s legislative assistant, Kiavash Najafi, says Dewar plans to reintroduce the bill at the first opportunity.
The bill would force electronics companies to monitor their suppliers for conflict minerals. In addition, a “corporate social responsibility counselor” would report to the minister and parliament as to which companies are not practicing due diligence in their purchasing.
Najafi says the bill would make it harder for rebels to sell the resources.
“This bill curbs the financial lifeline of this conflict,” Najafi says.
Missing the mark
However, some people familiar with the situation are skeptical about the impact Western legislation could actually have. It won’t play a strong role in combating problems in the Congo because it won't address the root of the conflict, says Laura Seay, an assistant professor of political science at Atlanta’s Morehouse College and who has worked in the Congo.
“I'm among those who are very cynical about the prospects for this approach doing much to help end the conflict in the Congo,” she says.
Seay says the country’s problems are based on state failure, which cannot be fixed by foreign government action. Instead, she says Canada should support the rebuilding of state institutions like the army, court and police systems
.Almost none of the profits from Congo's lucrative mining industry return to benefit everyday Congolese.
In addition, Seay points out that if legislation makes companies wary of buying the minerals, they may boycott Congolese dealers altogether. This could be devastating for the community as estimates suggest about one million Congolese are dependent on the mineral trade, militarized or not, for their livelihood.
“That's one million people who would be out of work and who lack other opportunities to earn money,” Seay says.
Just as food companies list ingredients on packaging, legislation would create more transparency in the supply chain, says Darren Fenwick, senior manager of government affairs for the Enough Project. The Washington-based human rights initiative has seen dramatic changes in the last two years, including legislation in the United States and recommendations from the UN.
The Enough Project recently ranked 21 electronics companies based on how thoroughly they investigated their supply chains and identified minerals in their smelters. The smelters represent the crucial point in the supply chain right before minerals are processed into metals.
“The idea is to create transparency in the supply chain and to make this information public,” Fenwick says. “And yes, it is naming and shaming.”
According to the Enough Project’s 2010 Executive Summary, HP, Motorola and Intel are most active in identifying the source of their minerals while Panasonic, Canon and Nintendo rank last.
The road to change?
Canada isn’t the only country heeding the UN’s call for action. In July 2010, the United States Congress passed the Dodd-Frank Act. The act requires electronics companies to report annually on whether conflict minerals are in their supply chains and if they are, what steps they are taking to reduce them.
According to Maurice Carney, executive director of Friends of the Congo, the U.S. legislation and the current Canadian efforts will only make a difference if they’re coupled with Western aid and political reform.
“The Congolese state needs to clean up its act across the board,” he says. “The degree to which rebel groups and Congolese soldiers control Congo's mines is related to the lack of political authority and democratic space allowed by the Kinshasa government.”
The Congolese conflict is very complex and there is no easy solution, says Fenwick, who plans to visit the Congo at the end of April. However, he says awareness is building and more Canadian consumers are realizing Congolese conflict is closer to home than they think.
- with files from Ruby Pratka
Conflict Minerals 101
Where it’s used: Smartphones and iPods
What it does: Allows smartphones and other mobile devices to hold vast amounts of data
Where it’s used: Cell phones
What it does: Stores electricity in phones and allows phones to hold a charge
Where it’s used: Circuit boards inside many different electronic devices
What it does: Connects electrical components (through soldering)
Where it’s used: Most cell phones
What it does: Allows phones to vibrate
Where it’s used: Most electronic devices
What it does: Coating for electrical wiring
Source: The Enough Project
Bill C-300, 2009
Who: Liberal MP John McKay
What: Under some circumstances, the federal government could investigate complaints about the activities of Canadian mining companies abroad and withhold financial support from offenders.
Result: Defeated in a vote of 140 to 134
Reaction: “Paul Dewar's current bill is less likely to make a difference,” says Maurice Carney, executive director of Friends of the Congo. “Canadians should continue the push led by supporters of Bill C-300 to hold Canadian Mining companies to the same standards in Africa that they are held to in Canada.”
Dodd-Frank Act, 2011
Who: US Sen. Christopher Dodd and Rep. Barney Frank
What: A rider on this comprehensive financial reform law required all electronics companies to disclose the origin of their minerals and eventually ensure none of the said minerals come from conflict zones
Result: Signed into law in July 2010, but has yet to be fully implemented by the Securities and Exchange Commission [US government financial regulatory body].
Reaction: “The Dodd-Frank Act is a huge step forward for African countries and all the activists who have been working for more than ten years on this issue,” says Ousmane Dème, director of transparency organization Publish What You Pay Canada [translated from French]. “It will have a concrete effect, because once companies are going to be obligated to report that they don’t use conflict minerals, ultimately that will break the link between the natural resources and the conflict.”
Bill C-571, 2010
Who: NDP MP Paul Dewar and Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj
What: Would require Canadian companies to disclose where their mineral components come from, similar to what is now done with food labels. Dewar says he hopes that once consumers are aware of product origins they will push companies harder to ensure conflict-free products.
Result: Passed first reading in late 2010 but died when an election was called March 26. Dewar's legislative assistant, Kiavash Najafi, says Dewar plans to reintroduce it at the first opportunity if re-elected.
Reaction: “The law that Dewar proposes is a really good thing,” says Dème. “It’s a law that allows us to create a debate…and keeps the momentum going for those who would not like to see Canada behind the rest of the world on these issues.”