Our electronic gadgets are fueling sexual violence and human rights atrocities

12 07 2009

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the deadliest and most dangerous war since World War II.  So far over five million people have died and countless women and children have been systematically raped in the past decade.  The militias use rape as a prime weapon of war to terrorize the population and fight for the control of “conflict minerals”.

What most people don’t know is that these conflict minerals , the 3 T’s – tin, tungsten and tantalum – and gold, all end up in electronic devices that most of us, especially myself, probably can’t imagine living without, like cell phones, laptops and iPods.  The armed groups perpetuating the violence generate around $144 million a year by trading these four conflict minerals.

  • 53% of tin worldwide is used as a solder on electric circuit boards for many electronic products like our cell phones.  Armed groups earn around $85 million annually trading tin.
  • Tungsten is the mineral that makes our cell phones vibrate.  Armed groups make around $2 million a year trading tungsten.
  • 65-80% of tantalum worldwide is used in electronic products and it is used to store electricity in capacitors in cell phones, iPods and digital cameras.  Armed groups make around $8 million annually from trading tantalum.
  • Gold is extremely valuable and used for jewelry but used for many electrical devices as well.  Armed groups make between $44 and 88 million a year from trading gold.

How do these conflict minerals make their way from the Congo into our daily electronic products?  It begins with artisanal miners, men and children who work in dangerous and unhealthy conditions while being paid next to nothing for their labor.  They mine for ores that produce those minerals which get smuggled across the border into Rwanda or Uganda, trucked over to ports in Kenya or Tanzania, and shipped off to Asia where they get smelted into metal and sold to various electronic companies.

Cell phone manufacturing companies like Samsung, Nokia and Motorola have long had policies against the use of conflict minerals in their products.  However there is such little oversight in the supply chain that makes it difficult to trace whether the minerals are actually conflict-free or not.  Most manufacturers simply take their suppliers’ word for it.

When I first learned that my day to day electronic products that I cannot imagine living without directly fuel the conflict in the Congo, I got the chills.  It is scary to know that my consumption of electronic gadgets that I need funds and fuels the rape of countless Congolese women, the exploitation of many Congolese men and children, and severe human rights atrocities.  As with many conflicts, there is no quick and easy answer.

But your cell phone and your laptop don’t have to fuel the deadliest war in the world.  Raise Hope for Congo has several ways that you can take action:


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