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Josh D. Scheinert Headshot

The Bloody, International Conflict That Starts in Your Pocket

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It is the deadliest conflict since World War II, the epicentre has been called the "rape capital of the world," and it has produced a long list of accused before the International Criminal Court charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is a far away conflict in a far away land. But unbeknownst to many readers, it's also in your pocket.

You can take out your cell phone now, open up its web browser and type in "congo coltan" to see how Google finishes the search. The first three search options it gave me ended with "mining," "war," or "conflict."

A plethora of factors exists for the fighting and suffering in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, one factor that keeps fuelling conflict between warlords and governments (foreign and domestic) is the prospect of enrichment. The DRC may have placed dead last in the 2011 UN Human Development Index, but mineral deposits make it one of the richest places on earth. Valued at $24 trillion, Congolese mineral deposits are invaluable to the production of basic electronics, like the cell phone in your pocket and laptop in front of you.

Minerals -- in particular tin, tantalum (coltan), and tungsten -- are mined in conditions no cell-phone user would ever tolerate in his home country. They are smuggled out of the DRC, often by paying bribes, where they take up their anonymous places in the lucrative global supply chain, perpetuating a cycle of killing, devastation, and corruption at home.

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We cannot live without our laptops and no one is giving up a cell phone anytime soon. But what if you were told that after children mined the minerals in your laptop, those minerals were smuggled to the Congolese border by a group of armed rebels who stopped only to pillage villages, while their comrades raped nearly 200 women and four baby boys? It happened, and continues to happen.

Canada will never fix the DRC alone; it's too broken. It can, however, play a small part in ensuring that our way of life, our cell phones and laptops, are not further fuelling this conflict.

Last August, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission implemented rule 1502 of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requiring companies to disclose to shareholders and the SEC the origin of the minerals in their products in an attempt to prevent conflict minerals from entering the supply chain. Since Dodd-Frank, the OECD has also gotten on board, publishing the Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas. Germany is leading a certification project.

No legislation or certification program exists in Canada and Canadian consumers are in the dark.

There is no excuse for government inaction. We know too much to do nothing.

Besides our knowledge of the conflict and suffering in DRC, we know that human rights concerns have a rightful place in the global supply chain. From the movement against sweatshops and child labour in Nike factories, to the push against blood diamonds in Sierra Leone and the subsequent global certification program the Kimberley Process, consumers, corporations, and markets have all adjusted accordingly.

It is, therefore, entirely unacceptable for a market-based economy that claims to have moral and ethical standards to continue permitting conflict minerals to enter our products unabated.

This is not about halting or slowing the production of our electronics. Nor, more importantly, is this about denying impoverished Congolese the opportunity to enjoy their potential mineral wealth. It is about saying that there are limits to what we as consumers and human beings will tolerate in our supply chains.

In partnership with the U.S.-based Enough Project, Stand Canada is launching the Conflict Free Canada Initiative in order to address the presence of conflict minerals in Canada. This should be the beginning of a Canadian discussion on how we can become more responsible consumers, learn from other initiatives, and enact our own legislation that addresses the ethical concerns surrounding conflict minerals.

To protect Congolese women from being raped, UN troops began what they termed "night flashes," whereby three trucks of peacekeepers spend the night in the bush with their headlights on in order to signal their presence, deter rebels, and reassure civilians. Jeffrey Gettleman has reported that, "Sometimes, when morning comes, 3,000 villagers are curled up on the ground around them."

The link between the joy our toys bring to us and the suffering they bring to others is irrefutable. Such a reality should be unacceptable.