Bloody BlackBerrys: the true cost of today’s electronics

Posted by on Dec 6, 2010 in St. Louis | No Comments

Written by Kathleen Brophy of the Washington University liveOneWorld chapter

Profile of a Congolese woman

What if I told you that the distance between you and a Congolese rape victim was three feet? Take a look around. There is probably at least one electronic product within a three-foot radius around you right now. It may be the BlackBerry in your pocket, the MacBook Pro sitting next to you, or the iPod blasting from your headphones. Regardless, the true connection between you and a Congolese rape victim sits in every one of those electronics.

The civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has lasted for 10 years; it is now the deadliest war since WWII, responsible for over 5 million deaths. To compound the circumstances, rape has become the most powerful and innovative weapon of war. Hundreds of thousands of women are raped and tortured daily. These women, from the age of two to eighty, are violated with tools and weapons, tortured and beaten, and destroyed so that they can no longer reproduce, or in some cases even survive. Because of this dire scenario, human rights groups have declared that the Congo is the worst place on the planet to be a woman.

Rape is being used in new and particularly cruel ways to tear apart the fabric of communities. By raping women in newly grotesque and abominable ways, militias effectively kill any semblance of spirit and faith that existed in the community. When a 5-year old boy is forced to rape his mother with a gun to her ear and a machete to his neck, any hope or trust one had is erased. Moreover, the men who are unable to protect their mothers, wives, and daughters from such atrocities feel guilty and angry. Basic family units are violently torn apart, leaving every individual alone in a state of hopeless disorder. The militias gain ground by disabling any possible form of unified resistance and terrorizing the countryside with increasingly feared violence.

The Congo is one of the world’s richest countries in terms of mineral resources. As seen with other countries, this richness can become a curse, contributing to the longevity of the war and the strength of the militia groups. Funded by the some of the most coveted minerals in the world, armed militias can finance and wage an endless war, perpetuating the violence against women. Tungsten, tantalum, tin—“the 3 T’s”—and gold are particularly sought-after minerals in the Congo, as they are necessary for the functioning of almost every electronic product. Every domestic electronics company currently obtains these minerals from the Congo. Every single electronic product you own is then strewn with a layer of this conflict, and that is something no BlackBerry case can cover up.

We have seen a similar issue before in the case of “blood diamonds,” proving that multimillion dollar companies can clean up their supply chain and effectively stop illegal trade and conflict. In the trace, audit, and certification scheme, companies can definitively ensure that the minerals in their products are not tainted by conflict. Without consumer pressure, however, companies have no incentive to change their destructive practices which allows the conflict in the Congo to continue.

As consumers, we are directly linked to this violence and massacre. We, with all the agency and power in the world, are at one end of the mineral chain while the Congolese rape victims are at the other. Yes, in some ways the blood of the Congolese is on each of our hands; but, literally in our hands, is the solution to the problem. These electronics companies answer to us. As consumers, we are in control: what we want is what they make. If we start asking for conflict-free products that are not sourced from the Congo, instead of asking for better 3G coverage, we’ll see change on this issue.

Better yet, we do not have to start from scratch. This past summer, included in the three hundred page Dodd-Frank Financial Regulation Bill, was a tiny Congo Amendment (Section 1502 Conflict Minerals.) This amendment put the issue of transparency into law by stating that electronics companies had to begin adhering to certification programs and start disclosing to their consumers that their products contained conflict minerals. But this is just the first step in the battle, as industry lobbyists and interest groups are wasting no time in appealing and watering down the obligations electronics companies could face. We need to enforce this law and show that we do not want to buy another product borne of bloodshed. If we stay silent, it is almost inevitable that the meat of this law and the meaningful application of it will be rendered completely useless.

A coalition of Wash. U. student groups, led by Amnesty International, is already taking the pledge to support the conflict-free movement. These students recognize the school’s innate responsibility as a huge consumer of electronics products and are seeking change. The coalition is working with the administration to garner support for the conflict-free movement and to join other universities in pressuring electronics companies to provide such products.

It is time for the rest of the student body to follow suit and support the movement. No radical action is needed. We simply need to assert our role as conscious consumers and demonstrate that we care about the resources that go into our products. Due to no effort of our own, we drew the long straw and are sitting at the much more fortunate end of the commodity chain. As you sit comfortably with your phone to your ear, remember the rape victim with the gun to hers.

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