Fac­ing death by gad­get

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

‘Blood di­a­monds” have faded away, but we may now be car­ry­ing “blood phones.” An ugly para­dox of the 21st cen­tury is that some of our el­e­gant sym­bols of moder­nity — smart­phones, lap­tops and dig­i­tal cam­eras — are built from min­er­als that seem to be fu­el­ing mass slaugh­ter and rape in Congo. With throngs wait­ing in lines in the last few days to buy the lat­est iPhone, I’m think­ing: What if we could har­ness that des­per­a­tion for new tech­nolo­gies to the des­per­ate need to curb the killing in cen­tral Africa?

I’ve never re­ported on a war more bar­baric than Congo’s, and it haunts me. In Congo, I’ve seen women who have been mu­ti­lated, chil­dren who have been forced to eat their par­ents’ flesh, girls who have been sub­jected to rapes that de­stroyed their in­sides. War­lords fi­nance their pre­da­tions in part through the sale of min­eral ore con­tain­ing tan­ta­lum, tung­sten, tin and gold. For ex­am­ple, tan­ta­lum from Congo is used to make elec­tri­cal ca­pac­i­tors that go into phones, com­put­ers and gam­ing de­vices.

Elec­tron­ics man­u­fac­tur­ers have tried to hush all this up. They want you to look at a gad­get and think “sleek,” not “blood.”

Yet now there’s a grass-roots move­ment pres­sur­ing com­pa­nies to keep these “con­flict min­er­als” out of high-tech sup­ply chains. Us­ing Face­book and YouTube, ac­tivists are ha­rass­ing com­pa­nies like Ap­ple, In­tel and Re­search in Mo­tion (which makes the Black­Berry) to get them to lean on their sup­pli­ers and en­sure the use of, say, Aus­tralian tan­ta­lum rather than tan­ta­lum ped­dled by a Con­golese mili­tia.

A hu­mor­ous new video taunt­ing Ap­ple and PC com­put­ers alike goes on­line this week­end on YouTube, with hopes that it will go vi­ral. Put to­gether by a group of Hollywood ac­tors, it’s a spoof on the fa­mous “I’m a Mac”/”I’m a PC” ad and sug­gests that both are some­times built from con­flict min­er­als.

“Guess we have some things in com­mon af­ter all,” Mac ad­mits.

Pro­test­ers demon­strated out­side the grand open­ing of Ap­ple’s new store in Washington, de­mand­ing that the com­pany com­mit to us­ing only clean min­er­als. Last month, ac­tivists blan­keted In­tel’s Face­book page with calls to sup­port tough leg­is­la­tion to curb trade in con­flict min­er­als. For a time, In­tel dis­abled com­ments — cre­at­ing a stink that called more at­ten­tion to blood min­er­als than hu­man rights cam­paign­ers ever could.

Partly as a re­sult, re­quire­ments that com­pa­nies re­port on their use of con­flict min­er­als were ac­cepted as an amend­ment to fi­nan­cial re­form leg­is­la­tion.

A word of back­ground: East­ern Congo is the site of the most lethal con­flict since World War II, and is widely de­scribed as the rape cap­i­tal of the world. The war had claimed 5.4 mil­lion deaths as of April 2007, with the toll mount­ing by 45,000 a month, ac­cord­ing to a study by the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee.

It’s not that Amer­i­can tech com­pa­nies are re­spon­si­ble for the slaugh­ter, or that elim­i­nat­ing con­flict min­er­als from Amer­i­cans’ phones will im­me­di­ately end the war. Even the Enough Project, an anti-geno­cide or­ga­ni­za­tion that has been a lead­ing force in the cur­rent cam­paign, es­ti­mates that only one-fifth of the world’s tan­ta­lum comes from Congo.

“There’s no magic-bul­let so­lu­tion to peace in Congo,” notes David Sul­li­van of the Enough Project, “but this is one of the driv­ers of the con­flict.” The eco­nom­ics of the war should be ad­dressed to re­solve it.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion also should put more pres­sure on Rwanda to play a con­struc­tive role next door in Congo (it has, in­ex­cus­ably, backed one mili­tia and bol­stered oth­ers by deal­ing ex­ten­sively in the con­flict min­er­als trade). Im­ped­ing trade in con­flict min­er­als is also a piece of the Congo puz­zle, and be­cause of pub­lic pres­sure, a group of com­pa­nies led by In­tel and Mo­torola is now de­vel­op­ing a process to au­dit ori­gins of tan­ta­lum in sup­ply chains. Man­u­fac­tur­ers pre­vi­ously set­tled for state­ments from sup­pli­ers that they do not source in east­ern Congo, with no ver­i­fi­ca­tion. Au­dit­ing the sup­ply chains at smelters to de­ter­mine whether min­er­als are clean or bloody would add about a penny to the price of a cell­phone, ac­cord­ing to the Enough Project, which says the fig­ure orig­i­nated with the in­dus­try.

“Ap­ple is claim­ing that their prod­ucts don’t con­tain con­flict min­er­als be­cause their sup­pli­ers say so,” said Jonathan Hut­son, of the Enough Project. “Peo­ple are say­ing that an­swer is not good enough. That’s why there’s this grass-roots move­ment, so that we as con­sumers can choose to buy con­flict free.”

Some ideas about what con­sumers can do are at raise­hope­for­Congo.org — start­ing with spread­ing the word.

We may be able to un­der­cut some of the world’s most bru­tal mili­tias sim­ply by mak­ing it clear to elec­tron­ics man­u­fac­tur­ers that we don’t want our beloved gadgets to en­rich sadis­tic gun­men. No phone or tablet com­puter can be con­sid­ered “cool” if it may be help­ing per­pet­u­ate one of the most bru­tal wars on the planet.

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