Cell Phones, Sexual Violence, and the Congo
March 15, 2014
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It’s not often that the West directly addresses its own fault in perpetuating the violence in the Congo. But at a recent United Nations event, held on International Women’s Day but the Enough Project, directly addressed the relationship between the Cellphone industry and sexual violence in the Congo. The panel, which included the U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Zainab Bangura as well as the Chair of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition Tim Mohin, addressed the connection with the consumer electronics industry, the mining industry, and the continuous conflict in the Congo. About17% of the population of the Democratic Republic of Congo is economically dependent on the mining industry. The money from mineral exports has continued to fuel the war, which is known for its high levels of sexual violence.
The conflict metal in question is tantalum, used in many consumer electronics, particularly cell phones. According to Mohin, the first hurdle is awareness in the industry itself, which has so many different components of the supply chain that many company decision makers know very little about where their products are sourced from.
EICC has already been working to establish a “conflict-free smelter program” that identifies which smelters in the DRC only use conflict-free minerals. While it has already established 75 conflict free smelters, that only represents a small fraction of the entire mining industry. The larger, more difficult problem, remains that there is not a large enough supply of conflict-free minerals.
This problem is a difficult one to tackle, but this represents a different approach to a now decades-old problem. Not only did the panel seek to address the specific problem of sexual violence in the Congo, the focus on organizations such as the EICC demonstrates a willingness to look at the situation from the point of the view of the true source of the problem. Rather than stemming the violence through arresting rebel leaders, we can look at where their resources to continue the fighting are coming from. If a solution in which the demand for minerals that come from conflict regions decreases in such a way that there is no more capital and weapons inflow to the Congo region, they will have no choice but to stop fighting.
That being said, this true-source type of solution is much easier said than done, particularly in a “free market economy” and regarding a mineral so limited in where it can be mined. However, the panel marks an important step in recognizing how related Western consumers are to the conflict.