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Electronics and Atrocities: Tech Supply Chains Must Do No Harm

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Sarah K. Dreier, a graduate student at the University of Washington and a former researcher at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, co-authored this post, which originally appeared on The Wonk Room.

From the satellite mapping of atrocities and data-driven prosecution of war criminals to the use of social networking to mobilize against repressive regimes, advances in science and technology hold unprecedented potential to make human rights a reality across the world.

A new report from the Center for American Progress, "New Tools for Old Traumas," calls on President Obama -- recently dubbed "Scientist in Chief" for his unprecedented commitment to research and development -- to lead efforts to use these new tools to bring human rights perpetrators to justice; halt ongoing atrocities; and empower victims to fight against injustice. Cell phone companies have crucial roles to play as well because part of the complexity of this issue is ensuring that these tools do not foster human rights atrocities as well as stop them.

Today, the mobile phone that an activist uses to mobilize protesters in Tehran is made with tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold, whose mining in eastern Congo has fueled the world's deadliest conflict since World War II.

All electronic devises -- from satellites to smart phones -- require these specialized metals. Tin is used to affix components to circuit boards. Tantalum is a vital element of capacitors that store electrical charge. And tungsten is a key ingredient in vibrate alert functions and LCD displays.

Unfortunately, the mines in eastern Congo that produce these mineral ores fuel and support armed groups on all sides of the conflict. These groups -- including the Rwandan Hutu rebels who helped commit the 1994 genocide and Congo's ill-disciplined and predatory armed forces -- exploit impoverished miners and extort exorbitant 'taxes' from this trade. They use the profits to finance some of the worst human rights abuses in the world, including an epidemic of sexual violence that makes eastern Congo the most dangerous on the globe to be a woman or a girl.

Eastern Congo is the sight of the worst abuses in the supply chain for electronics products, but it is by no means the only one. From extraction in mining to unsafe and exploitative conditions in manufacturing facilities in Asia, the intricate supply chains that produce these products are opaque and electronics companies have yet to fully assume responsibility for the behavior of their suppliers or their suppliers' suppliers.

These tools, which have such potential for fostering free expression and abating atrocities, must no longer be used to fuel this violence.

Last week, Washington took a small but important step forward on this issue. The Defense Authorization legislation that President Obama signed into law contains a requirement for the U.S. government to support efforts to map the militarized mining sites of eastern Congo. This will help to increase transparency of the trade and aid efforts to distinguish between mines controlled by armed groups and those that are free of conflict. But government cannot solve this problem on its own -- the makers of mobile phones and other electronics products have a central role to play.

Electronics companies should commit resources to trace supply chains back to the point of extraction, conduct independent audits and spot check assurances for fraud, and ultimately certify electronics products as conflict-free.

As daily consumers and users of laptops and cell phones, average citizens too must demonstrate that we are willing to pay to make this happen. Give your mobile phone company a call, and tell them, "I want to buy a conflict-free phone."

Ensuring that these products do no harm will require an ethical revolution in how we manage the intricate and globalized supply chains for electronics. We should care as much for how our technology is made as we do for the pleasure and convenience we derive from using it.

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