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While the trade and purchase of “conflict” diamonds has been well-publicized, other minerals are routinely mined and traded in war-torn countries such as Congo. Surprisingly, or at least not as well publicized, many of these minerals play an integral role in the development of cell phones.
Four minerals commonly used in cellphones currently fuel the war in eastern Congo today – tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold. At these mines, it is not uncommon to see militiamen armed with AK-47 machine guns standing over miners and forcing them to work and pay bribes, including child miners as young as 11. Army and rebel commanders then sell the minerals to smugglers, who pay in U.S. dollars. Human rights observers have witnessed the minerals being packed into barrels with Congolese flags on them, loaded onto planes, and flown out of the country.
Despite being mired in the middle of hyper-partisan politicking and countless domestic problems, a bipartisan group in Congress has emerged and is attempting to stop the trade. This group was able to pass legislation that was folded into the recent Wallstreet financial reform bill which requires publicly listed manufacturers who use these minerals to conduct independent audits of their supply chains.
Legislators, in addition to the humans rights groups who supported the legislation, hope to achieve three things through the audit – (1) tracing: to determine the precise sources of the companies’ minerals, (2) auditing: to independently verify the sources and trading routes of the minerals, and (3) certifying: to work with the Congolese, Rwandan, U.S. and other governments to develop a certification process that improves upon systems already created for other exports such as blood diamonds.
Some critics of the bill have complained that those campaigning for an end to the conflict minerals trade are advocating for a boycott of electronics companies. In addition, some mineral trading companies have also argued that Congress and the conflict minerals movement will force them to pull out of Congo, creating an embargo and hurting miners. However, the bill provides companies at least eighteen months from now to report to Congress on their audits, which should be more than enough time to trace, audit and certify their supply chains.
While this bill only provides the foundation for what will certainly be a long process, it is is refreshing to see members of Congress from both parties work together on an issue that is not well-publicized and will not necessarily lead to reelection. This issue also presents an opportunity for a creative electronic company to seize the lead on the use of conflict minerals in cell phones, a move that would likely create increased goodwill with consumers and provide priceless PR. Finally, and most importantly, this bill could be another step in the reduction of suffering in war-torn countries such as Congo, making it a positive both domestically and abroad.
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