By Rima Abdelkader
For many, one's cell phone has become a fifth limb. But, for Congolese lawyer Joseph Mbangu, it's more a case of life and death.
The New York-based lawyer is trying to alert cell phone and laptop users that a key ingredient in their devices has been at the center of vicious struggles over natural resources between rebel and government forces in the eastern Congo.
"So many people have to die for us to be innocent users over here," said Mbangu, who is also the outreach coordinator for the documentary, "The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo," recently aired on HBO.
Congolese miners have been killed, and women raped during the 11-year war over mineral deposits in the eastern Congo, Mbangu said. One of the deposits is a natural metallic ore, columbite-tantalite, or coltan, that, when refined, stores an electric charge in a capacitor used in common electronic devices.
The Congo region, which contains as much as 80 percent of the world's coltan reserves, yielded 300 tons and $5.42 million last year, up 50 percent over 2007, a recent U.N. Security Council report said.
There is some dispute over the percentage. The independent group of advisors put the figure as high as 80 percent, but Sasha Leshnev, a Washington-based researcher who is an expert on minerals in the DRC, puts it at 15 percent. For the Congolese caught in the conflict, it hardly matters.
"For women to be raped and mutilated so that some rogue army could sell it (coltan) and enslave people and have forced labor is really outrageous," Mbangu said.
The exploitation of mineral resources is one of several factors that is fueling the ongoing conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, said U.N. spokesman Yves Sorokobi.
DRC's U.N. ambassador Faida Mitifu, speaking recently in New York during a panel discussion on media coverage of sexual violence against Congolese women, said the exploitation of mineral resources is the driving force behind the conflict. The history of exploitation and conflict dates back to the Congo's colonial history with Belgium, she said.
But she said there's renewed hope for change.
After a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last year on sexual violence and conflict in the Congo, Sen. Sam Brownback (R. - Kan) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D. - Ill) introduced a bill last May that would prohibit the sale of certain products that contain coltan or cassiterite mined in the DRC.
Although the legislation stalled, Durbin will reintroduce the bill after Easter recess, his press secretary, Max Gleischman said.
The U.N. Security Council also is trying to bring attention to the issue. "Exporters and consumers of Congolese mineral products should step up their due diligence efforts by publicly disclosing evidence that would demonstrate that they are not knowingly purchasing tainted minerals from the Democratic Republic of the Congo," the 2008 UN report said.
To step up the pressure, the U.N. Sanctions Committee in February also listed two firms that operate in the Congo, the Bakavu Aviation Transport and the Business Air Services, that are allegedly involved in the illegal exporting of coltan and other natural resources from the DRC.
Mbangu, the Congolese attorney, called on electronics companies to come up with alternative minerals to replace coltan or to find the mineral elsewhere.
Leshnev, the expert on minerals in the DRC, agreed. He joined with 32 organizations, including The Enough Project, in a letter campaign asking CEOs of major electronic companies to change the way metals are purchased.
"If the major electronic companies would have independent supply chain audits for their metals as well as be able to trace their metals back to the mine of origin, then the average American consumer would know that their product would be conflict free," said Leshnev.
Tama McWhinney, a spokeswoman for Motorola, said the cell phone manufacturer is "concerned about what is happening with coltan in the Congo" and has asked vendors to "verify in writing that the coltan that is used" in their protects is not from the DRC.
With more than four billion cell phone subscribers worldwide, up from one billion six years ago, even Mbangu admitted it's very difficult to navigate in the 21st century without a cell phone or a laptop. He occasionally uses both devices but it hasn't stopped his campaign to protect innocent people in the Congo.
It's difficult to enforce the same kind of sanctions against those who were involved in the illegal mining of diamonds, Mbangu said. Unlike diamonds, coltan is not a luxury, and it is not as visible as a diamond necklace, he said.