The Genocide Behind Your Smart Phone

An unidentified man searches for tin ore at a sub-Saharan mine. Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Images

It takes a lot to snap people out of apathy about Africa's problems. But in the wake of Live Aid and Save Darfur, a new cause stands on the cusp of going mainstream. It's the push to make major electronics companies (manufacturers of cell phones, laptops, portable music players, and cameras) disclose whether they use "conflict minerals"—the rare metals that finance civil wars and militia atrocities, most notably in Congo.

The issue of ethical sourcing has long galvanized human-rights groups. In Liberia, Angola, and Sierra Leone, the notorious trade in "blood diamonds" helped fund rebel insurgencies. In Guinea, bauxite sustains a repressive military junta. And fair-labor groups have spent decades documenting the foreign sweatshops that sometimes supply American clothing stores. Yet Congo raises especially disturbing issues for famous tech brand names that fancy themselves responsible corporate citizens.

A key mover behind the Congo campaign is the anti-genocide Enough Project: witness its clever spoof of the famous Apple commercial. Major names like Hillary Clinton and Nicole Richie have gotten on board. And the timing is perfect: new rules requiring American-listed companies to improve their supply-chain transparency are folded into the financial-reform bill that passed Congress this week.

Congo is a classic victim of the resource curse. Its bountiful deposits—in everything from copper to diamonds—are brazenly plundered by corrupt governments and regional warlords while the population goes without basic services. Today, most violence—including mass rape, slavery, mutilation, and possibly even forced cannibalism—is concentrated in the war-ravaged eastern Kivu provinces, where the Congolese Army and ethnic militias bludgeon each other over the right to trade in mineral ore. One study estimates 5.4 million people have been killed since 1998; 45,000 fatalities still occur each month. Infant mortality and death from HIV/AIDS are also rampant—Congo ranks 16th and sixth-highest in the world, respectively, on these measures.

Still, minerals like tantalum, tin, and tungsten are essential for our wired lifestyle. Tantalum—of which Congo produces about 20 percent of world's supply—makes capacitors that store electric charge, allowing our devices to function without batteries. Tin is used to fortify circuit boards. Tungsten helps our iPhones vibrate.

But this dependency has a cost in human rights. The U.N. Group of Experts reported last year that the annual trade in gold, tin, and coltan (or tantalum ore) delivers hundreds of millions of dollars into the coffers of the FDLR militia, whose myriad factions include Congolese Army renegades and Hutu fighters associated with the 1994 Rwandan genocide. With irregular arms delivery tracked from North Korea and Sudan, there is little doubt that bounty funds butchery.

Conflict-free sources of the "three T" minerals do exist. Yet Congo has a huge competitive advantage over resource-rich rivals like Australia, Canada, and Brazil. Ore extraction is both cheap and lucrative for the militias that control the mines. For one, they can coerce miners to work for a pittance (an average of $1 to $5 per day). For another, they can enforce protection rackets on legitimate operators or simply steal minerals after they've been mined. Then the militias extract bribes and impose taxes along the transport route.

Yet supply-chain audits are far from rigorous because the minerals change hands so many times on the way to the market. After transiting across Africa, the ore is eventually shipped from ports in Kenya and Tanzania to multinational smelting and processing companies located mainly in Asia; from there, component manufacturers purchase the metals and convert them into capacitors and circuit boards; finally, these are sold to electronics manufacturers. Hewlett-Packard, for example, says, "[T]hese issues are far removed from HP, typically five or more tiers from our direct suppliers." Nonetheless, it "expects" suppliers to operate in a manner that does not directly support armed conflict. The company also claims to possess repeated assurances from capacitor suppliers that they do not use Congo-sourced tantalum (although it remains unsure where the tantalum comes from).

Replying personally on his iPhone to a concerned customer last month, Apple CEO Steve Jobs made similar points: "We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict-[free] materials. But honestly there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it's a very difficult problem." And Microsoft has said that a "conflict mineral free supply chain is a priority."

The minerals trade already suffers from a lack of international enforcement. A U.N.-approved certification scheme known as the Kimberley Process currently operates to prevent blood diamonds from entering mainstream markets (one requirement is that diamonds be shipped in tamperproof containers). But there is no equivalent for other minerals often mined in war zones. Germany wants certified trading chains—linking international purchasers with conflict-free mining sites. (It is piloting a program to "fingerprint" legitimate tantalum sources in Congo and Rwanda.) But the logistics are daunting and there has been little international support since the 2007 G8 summit, when the concept was first advanced.

In the meantime, local transparency requirements may partly fill the breach. The financial-reform bill passed this week requires American-listed companies to disclose whether they source minerals from Congo. (Although importantly, the provision does not make such trade illegal—out of a fear of damaging the livelihoods of Congolese who rely on legitimate mines.) Companies must provide independently audited reports showing what they've done to avoid financing armed conflict—such as citing documentation between the African source country and the Asian processor. Failure to cooperate or the filing of a false report could result in court sanctions.

David Sullivan, policy manager for Enough, says the bill places the onus on companies to do their homework. He praises companies such as Intel that are already building an audit process. "We [have] yet to see a smoking gun from a conflict mine to a major electronics brand, but the companies are fairly upfront about the fact there's no mechanism in place to ensure these minerals are not seeping into their supply chains." The National Association of Manufacturers, however, lobbied hard against the provision—a spokeswoman told NEWSWEEK that, given the intricate nature of global supply chains, the requirements (particularly for non–electronics manufacturers) would be difficult to implement. "The battleground will be how this law is translated into regulation," says Sullivan.

When President Obama signs financial reform, we're likely to start hearing (and thinking) much more about Congo's conflict minerals. In the end, Enough and its allies believe awareness drives better policy. So as we lovingly thumb our latest high-tech device, perhaps some self-reflection: after all, the final point in the supply chain is us.