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Electronics Companies and Consumers Can Help Stop Congolese Bloodshed

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Co-authored by Sasha Lezhnev

Have a cell phone or laptop computer? Then the conflict in eastern Congo, which has killed five times as many people as the war in Iraq, affects you. Fresh attacks last month caused 100,000 people to lose their homes, the latest in a war in which tens of thousands of women have been raped by violent armed groups.

We just returned from eastern Congo, where the demand for cheaper electronics is a key driver of this war. Our research has revealed that armed groups in eastern Congo earned approximately $185 million last year from trading in four minerals that form critical components in cell phones: the 3Ts of tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. The militias get rich and buy weapons by selling these minerals to smelting companies in East Asia, who then sell them to consumer electronics firms such as Apple and Nokia.

The human rights records of the armed groups speak for themselves. One militia, the FDLR, is led by the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. And the Congolese army recently absorbed another militia headed by Bosco Ntaganda, aka "The Terminator," a war criminal indicted by the International Criminal Court for conscripting child soldiers, including using 13-year-old girls as his personal bodyguards.

The answer to this problem isn't simple, but it is far from impossible. It requires a commitment by the Obama administration, electronics firms and the Congolese government to clean up supply chains and invest in good governance. These steps would cut off a key source of funding for the militias and make the conflict significantly easier to resolve.

But some corporate interests would have you believe otherwise. Metals trading companies have argued that cleaning up supply chains would impoverish miners in eastern Congo. We share their interest in the livelihoods of eastern Congolese people, but let's be clear on how we can actually help impoverished people in that region.

Miners in eastern Congo work in the worst conditions in the world. Ben, a 15-year old child miner, told us how he had worked in a mine since he was 10 and narrowly avoided a mine shaft collapse last year, a common occurrence in an area with no health or safety standards. Meanwhile, The Terminator's militia and other armed groups rack up the profits from the trade by controlling the mines or taxing the trading routes.

The central reason why these conditions are so horrific is the presence of the armed groups. Cutting off their resource base is the key to getting them off of miners' back.
We also need a plan to directly address the needs of miners. To that end, the Obama administration should partner with the Congolese government to enact reforms enabling miners to benefit from Congo's mineral wealth. These efforts must be complemented by investment in agriculture, a sustainable source of employment for ex-miners.

Added transparency and improved regulation would help provide real employment to miners with companies with meaningful health and safety standards. To jump-start this process, the Enough Project has organized a conflict minerals pledge (www.raisehopeforcongo.org), which companies and consumers can sign to reform their supply chains and make their electronics verifiably conflict-free.
Combating the conflict minerals trade requires a comprehensive strategy involving electronics and metals companies, the U.S. and regional governments and consumers. It took over a decade for the blood diamonds campaign to help halt Sierra Leone's bloodshed. The Congolese people can't afford another decade of conflict fueled by our consumer demands.

Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News
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John Prendergast is co-founder of Enough, the project to end genocide and crimes against humanity at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank. Sasha Lezhnev is executive director of the Grassroots Reconciliation Group, a nonprofit that aids former child soldiers. They wrote this article for the Mercury News.