As we prepare for the holiday season, many of us are thinking about how we can be responsible consumers. The choices we make about where we shop and what we buy have an important impact on the environment and on the people who make the products we enjoy.
Four and a half years ago, I visited the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- a place of beauty and heartbreak, mountain gorillas and mass atrocities.
For a decade and a half, government forces, rebel groups, and private militias have been competing for control of territory and natural resources.
I spoke with Congolese government officials to see what was being done to enable a future of peace and sustainable development. The most striking response was not an answer but a question -- my question, turned back on me: "What are you doing?"
And it was a fair question, because the truth is that the tragedy of the Congo is not merely a Congolese or an African problem. It is our problem -- and the reason is probably in your pocket.
Since 1998, armed conflict in the Congo has killed 5.4-million people -- the population of Greater Toronto, or the combined population of Los Angeles and Manhattan -- in the deadliest conflict since the Second World War.
In 2011, the number of rapes was estimated at 48 -- not per year, not per month, not per day, but 48 rapes every single hour.
The conflict in the Congo is fuelled and funded by minerals -- gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum. Too often, these minerals end up in our cellphones, computers, and jewellery.
These conflict minerals generate around $180 million per year for armed groups, literally keeping some militias in business. Many -- up to 40 per cent -- of those working in the mines are children.
Since my time in the Congo, I have made it a personal priority to use my role as a legislator to help connect Canadians to this issue and curtail the presence of conflict minerals in Canada. This March, I introduced the Conflict Minerals Act in the House of Commons.
The drafting process was comprehensive, with many months of positive and fruitful consultations with industry and civil society representatives in Canada and abroad.
The bill was introduced at a time of international action on conflict minerals. In May 2011, the OECD adopted guidelines regarding corporate due diligence. And in August 2012, the American Securities Exchange Commission announced new rules requiring companies to demonstrate due diligence in their use of the 3T+G minerals: tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold.
All of the main tech companies, from BlackBerry to Microsoft, and from Apple to Nokia, are taking steps to reduce conflict minerals in their products. They realize that in today's market, accountable companies have a competitive advantage.
Time and time again, companies have made clear that they are ready to get on board with regulations, so long as these regulations are clear and internationally consistent.
At the end of the day, this is as much about consumer rights as corporate responsibility. We should all be able to know whether minerals in products we purchase may have contributed to funding and fuelling conflict, and make informed choices as consumers.
This should not be a partisan issue -- it's not about left and right, it's about right and wrong. The American regulation was the product of bipartisan legislation. And we know that change is possible, because we've done this before.
Throughout the 1990s, the illegal trade in diamonds was providing substantial funding to warlords and rebels in Africa. Separate and joint meetings of diamond-producing countries, international organizations, global civil society, and extractive companies led to the Kimberley Process (KP) for certifying rough diamond exports.
Today, KP members account for nearly all of the global production of rough diamonds. Illegal exports are largely prevented, and legal trade is fostered by the increased consumer confidence provided by certification. In turn, legal and responsible trade contributes directly to sustainable economic and social development.
We now have a chance to do the same thing for the key minerals contributing to conflict in Central Africa.
The time is right for significant change.
Minerals may be everywhere, but conflict doesn't have to be. Just as people can now give ethical diamonds, we should be able to give electronics and jewellery in good conscience. Together, we can take conflict out of Canadian homes, and, in doing so, out of the Congo.
That really would be a wonderful gift.
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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. 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)
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. 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)
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. 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)
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. 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 )
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. Caption: Congolese government soldiers (FARDC) patrol the streets of Minova under their control, Sunday Nov. 25, 2012. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
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. 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)
Congolese flees the eastern Congolese town of Sake , 27kms west of Goma, Friday Nov. 23 2012. Thousands fled the M23 controlled town as platoons of rebels were making their way across the hills from Sake to the next major town of Minova, where the Congolese army was believed to be regrouping. The militants seeking to overthrow the government vowed to push forward despite mounting international pressure.(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
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