Ending the sexual violence behind the 'cellphone war'
(Guardian Web Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Connecting purchasing decisions in developed countries to human rights abuses on the other side of the world is a difficult feat, regardless of whether you are an activist or businessperson. At a recent United Nations event, a panel of experts debated how consumer electronics companies, including some of the most prominent brand names in the industry, are working to ameliorate a brutal, systematic and ongoing human rights abuse.
The event, held on International Women's Day by non-profit the Enough Project, brought together a a panel including activist John Prendergast, UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict Zainab Bangura, Congolese activist Sylvie Maunga Mbanga, actor and activist Robin Wright, and Tim Mohin, chair of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition.
Enough project policy associate, Holly Dranginis, opened the panel with examples of how sexual violence is used as a deliberate, systematic tool of war, drawing from situations in Rwanda and the Balkans. In the Congo, for example, rebel leader Bosco Ntaganda has been accused of ordering soldiers to rape civilians. And, Dranginis noted, an UN report estimated that 400,000 women have been raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since its civil war began.
The big questions is: what can business do to stop such horrific human rights abuses from happening in their supply chains?
Fueling the conflict
One factor that has helped to fund the DRC war, and provide much of its impetus, is mining. Mohin notes that 12.5 million Congolese, about 17% of the country's population, is economically reliant on the industry, and its minerals are shipped around the world. They are used to make, among other things, consumer electronics.
This linkage between conflict minerals and electronic products was what first brought the war to the attention of actor and activist Robin Wright. After seeing The Greatest Silence, a documentary on rape in the Congo, she realized that she was, to some measure, involved in the Congolese conflict.
"I was utterly shocked to find out that women were being treated this way over primarily what I was holding in my hand at the time, which was a cellphone," she says. "We were fueling the war, in essence, by purchasing products."
At the heart of "the cellphone war", as Wright calls it, is the relationship between electronics companies and mineral suppliers. Wright's efforts, and those of others, helped draw attention to this relationship, and a provision in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was designed to severely restrict the use of conflict minerals in electronics production.
The trouble, however, is that this linkage is not always transparent. As chair of the EICC and director of corporate responsibility at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Tim Mohin has been at the heart of the conflict minerals debate. He claims that, at first, many members of the industry were unaware of their relationship to the Congolese mining industry.
"When we first heard of these issues", he says, "We thought that they were very far away. Some of our companies … are five to seven layers removed from this part of the supply chain."
Even after the electronics industry became aware of the problem, a solution was unclear. "It can be daunting," Mohin says, "When you think about tracking minerals and metals from a high-tech product all the way back to the mine of origin." To do so, the industry explored the supply chain until they found a natural choke point: the smelters and refiners who link the hundreds of small mining operations in the Congo to the worldwide electronics industry.
Working with the smelters, Mohin says, the EICC was able to establish a "conflict-free smelter program".
The need for industry-wide action
"We have an audit protocol, we train auditors and we send these people out to smelters to find out whether [they] are buying from conflict sources or not," he explains. Thus far, the protocol has established 75 smelters that produce conflict-free minerals. Unfortunately, they represent a fraction of the smelters currently working in the Congo. The EICC is working to expand the program, but Mohin notes that, thus far, there simply isn't a large enough supply of conflict-free minerals.
Mohin argues that one problem with the program is that other industries need to increase their involvement. There are four major conflict minerals – tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold – and, he points out, the electronics industry is the majority user of just one, tantalum. However, he notes that efforts to expand to other industries are bearing fruit: the EICC's conflict free sourcing initiative, he claims, "is starting to bring them in".
One of the hurdles of dealing with the Congo conflict mineral issue is that the daunting complexities of the problem may convince many industries to avoid the region completely. Companies hoping to source minerals from the DRC have to deal with greater legal oversight, more paperwork, and expensive audits. For that matter, the difficulty of overseeing suppliers can drive potential purchasers to less problematic sources.
Mohin argues, however, that electronics companies, customers and non-profits can work together to improve the region. He notes, for example, that the Enough project ranks companies on their avoidance of conflict minerals, offering a great resource for consumers who wish to avoid supporting warfare-based sexual violence.
Ultimately, however, it's clear that more industries need to get involved, more resources need to be applied to the problem, and more interest needs to be generated if conflict minerals, and the sexual violence that often accompanies them, is to be truly overcome.
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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