Opinion

Stop your gadget greed from fueling tragedy in Congo

As consumers, we can use buying power to end this deadly war driven by "conflict minerals."

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Your cellphone purchases might be fueling the world's worst sexual violence.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is a place most of us will never go, and the war there is affecting people most of us will never meet. But the link between our demand for electronic products and mass human suffering is incredibly direct.

It is stunning that we as consumers have been completely unaware of the complex chain of events tying widespread sexual violence in Congo to the minerals that help power our cellphones, laptops, mp3 players, video games, and digital cameras. Thankfully, there is an alternative: Companies and consumers alike must use our buying power to bring this deadly war fueled by "conflict minerals" to an end.

Congo's protracted wars have led to horrific widespread violence by an array of armed groups. The war going on now is the deadliest since World War II. In particular, sexual violence has become a tool of war and punishment for Congo's armed groups on an immense scale.

The Congo war has the highest rate of violence against women and girls in the world. Reports – which offer low estimates since untold numbers of women likely choose not to report crimes against them – indicate that hundreds of thousands have been brutally raped. The immense scale of violence against women sets Congo apart. Were occurrences of such heinous proportions happening in our own backyard, we would have a greater sense of urgency.

Sexual violence in Congo is often fueled by militias and armies warring over "conflict minerals," the ores that produce tin, tungsten, and tantalum as well as gold. Armed groups from Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda finance themselves through the illicit conflict mineral trade and fight over control of mines and taxation points inside Congo.

But the story does not end there. Well-documented by the United Nations, business interests move these conflict minerals from Central Africa to countries mainly in Asia, where they are processed into valuable metals and then used in a wide array of essential electronic products. Consumers in the US, Europe, and Asia inadvertently fuel the war through their purchases of electronics.

Because we are all unconsciously part of the problem in Congo, we can and must all consciously become part of the solution. American consumers can exert enormous leverage over the companies from which we purchase our electronics by pressuring them to ensure that their products are conflict-free and that Congo's natural resources benefit the Congolese people and not militias and perpetrators of crimes against humanity.

Such efforts have worked before. In the 1990s, "blood diamond" conflicts raged across Sierra Leone and Angola. Today, thanks in part to global pressure, those countries are turning things around and using diamonds for development.

Industry leaders such as Apple, Nokia, Hewlett-Packard, or Nintendo have an obligation to ensure that they are not contributing to human rights abuses at any point along the supply chain. This will require them to change their procurement practices and to demand that their suppliers provide proof of where their minerals are sourced from.

We also must develop the means to hold corporations accountable. To that end, we are asking companies to publicly pledge that their products will be verifiably conflict free over the next year.

According to CNN, some companies already have policies on minerals from DR Congo. Motorola, Apple, HP, Nokia, and Research in Motion Ltd. all say they bar suppliers from selling them Congolese ore containing tantalum. But most of these policies only refer to tantalum and neglect the other minerals of concern. Moreover, these are merely written assurances that do not provide proof of where the minerals actually come from. They are not verified by any independent source. That is why we need more definitive proof through tracing and auditing.

Thankfully, legislation has been introduced in Congress requiring companies to disclose the origins of their minerals. This would put the burden of proof on companies to prove that they are not sourcing their minerals in ways that finance armed groups in Congo.

We do not want companies simply to turn their backs on eastern Congo. Electronics companies that profit from this trade owe it to the millions of Congolese whose livelihoods depend on mining to help transform the mineral trade into an engine of empowerment, rather than fuel for atrocities.

Today we can use the technologies that have fueled Congo's atrocities to put an end to mass atrocities and to help build a hopeful future for suffering Congolese families. Millions of lives have been at stake. We must use our purchasing power responsibly and consciously and demand that President Obama, Congress, and our electronics companies do all they can to help end the violence.

We have a unique opportunity to use the very instruments of Congo's suffering to help end it. Can you hear Congo now?

Sheryl Crow is a nine-time Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter. John Prendergast is cofounder of Enough, the project to end genocide and crimes against humanity at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think-tank.

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