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The Bloody, International Conflict That Starts in Your Pocket

Posted: 03/12/2013 8:53 am

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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    Congo is sub-Saharan Africa's biggest country, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to two-thirds of the way across the continent. It is plagued by a lack of roads and railways. The feeble government in the capital Kinshasa is nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away from Goma, the strategic eastern town that was seized by M23 rebels on Nov. 20. A succession of rebel groups and warlords have for years taken advantage of the power vacuum to get a piece of the mining action in eastern Congo. <em>Caption: An M23 rebel marches towards the town of Sake, 26km west of Goma, as thousands of residents flee fresh fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo town on November 22, 2012. (PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images)</em>


    Eastern Congo is estimated to have mineral deposits worth trillions of dollars, according to mining experts. The area holds about 70 percent of the world's supply of tantalum, a metal used in cellphones, tablets, laptops and other computers, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The eastern region also has massive amounts of gold, tin, tungsten, copper, coltan and cobalt. Much of the ore mined is smuggled out of Congo and passes through Rwanda, Uganda or Burundi, according to the Enough Project, a Washington-based organization campaigning against conflict minerals. Some 450,000 artisanal miners work in eastern Congo, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. <em>Caption: A displaced Congolese woman carries her belongings in the grounds of a religious organisation on the outskirts of Goma in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo on November 25, 2012. (PHIL MOORE/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • M23 REBELS

    The M23 rebel group was formed almost eight months ago by former members of a now defunct insurgent group that had been incorporated into the Congolese army as part of a March 23, 2009, peace agreement. The new group was created by the former rebels who deserted from the army. Their name refers to the date of the peace agreement, which M23 accuses the government of not honoring. Since May, M23 has seized territory in North Kivu province, culminating last week with the capture of Goma, a lakeside city of 1 million and a key trading hub bordering Rwanda. <em>Caption: Congolese policeman in riot gear keeps an eye on Goma residents including street children who gathered for an anti Kabila demonstration supported by the M23 rebel movement in Goma, eastern Congo, Wednesday Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)</em>


    M23 is believed to have been created by warlord Bosco "The Terminator" Ntaganda, who had been a leader of the former rebel group, the National Congress for the Defense of the People, or CNDP. The CNDP was backed by Rwanda, which also allegedly arms and gives other support to M23. As part of the 2009 agreement, Ntaganda, Ntaganda was made was made a general in the army and deputy commander for an operation meant to go after a militia made of Hutus who took part in Rwanda's genocide. In early 2012, Congolese President Joseph Kabila came under international pressure to arrest Ntaganda and transfer him to the Hague to face war crimes charges in the International Criminal Court. Ntaganda avoided immediate arrest, launched a mutiny and was joined by some loyal men who are believed to have formed M23. Kabila, whose father had led a rebellion in 1997 that toppled dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, had also vowed to dismantle a parallel chain of command that Ntaganda established in eastern Congo's North Kivu and South Kivu provinces. Ntaganda had operated lucrative businesses with other army officers in the east, including a smuggling racket taking minerals into neighboring Rwanda, according to a U.N. report released on Nov. 21. <em>Caption: Displaced Congolese run through a rain storm at Mugunga 3 camp west of Goma , eastern Congo, Monday Nov. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay )</em>


    Rwanda has backed rebels groups in eastern Congo as a defense against other militias of Hutu extremists, many responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide, who operate in east Congo. But many analysts also think Rwanda is motivated to support sympathetic power networks in the east so that it can profit from the export of smuggled Congolese minerals. M23's success has been due to direct support from powerful figures in Rwanda and neighboring Uganda, according to U.N. investigators researching the conflict in eastern Congo. The report says that high-ranking Rwandan government and army figures, most notably Defense Minister James Kabarebe and Chief of Defense Staff Charles Kayonga, have supported the M23 by providing recruits, sophisticated arms, ammunition and finances. Rwanda also wants to use M23 as a Tutsi force to counter the Hutu rebels of the FDLR, also operating in eastern Congo, said the U.N. report. The Rwandan government of President Paul Kagame vehemently denies it supports M23. <em>Caption: Congolese government soldiers (FARDC) patrol the streets of Minova under their control, Sunday Nov. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)</em>


    Uganda has also supported the M23, although on a smaller scale, said the U.N. report. This has allegedly been driven by a few powerful Ugandans intent on profiteering from access to Congo's rich mineral resources. Uganda denies supporting M23. The rebels feel comfortable in Uganda and can come and go as they wish. Their external relations official is now based in Kampala, Uganda's capital. The U.N. report did not accuse Uganda of orchestrating an official policy of backing the rebels, but it said some within the military were using their influence to procure arms and ammunition for the rebels. The U.N. investigators even claim that units of the Rwandan and Ugandan armies have fought alongside M23 soldiers against the Congolese army. A "mixed brigade" of Rwandan and Ugandan soldiers allegedly numbered more men than the massed ranks of the M23 forces, said the U.N. report. <em>Caption: Congolese flees the eastern Congolese town of Sake , 27kms west of Goma, Friday Nov. 23 2012. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)</em>


    The Congolese army – underfed, poorly supplied and rarely paid – have repeatedly retreated in the face of M23 attacks. Even if the rebels withdraw from Goma now, military experts say the well-organized, well-supplied M23 will remain to seize the key city again. U.N. investigators claim that the ultimate goal of M23 and Rwanda is the annexation of the North and South Kivu provinces and the region's mineral wealth. They say the battle for Goma may be just the beginning of a long and bloody conflict for control of eastern Congo. <em>Caption: A man takes part in a demonstration in front of the UN headquarters in Pretoria, on November 27, 2012, against UN peacekeeping troops in Goma not protecting women and children against the M23 rebels. (ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

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.


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