Mobile Phone Industry Accused of Financing Congo Conflict
Mobile Phone Industry Accused of Financing Congo Conflict

Bipartisan legislation on so called "conflict minerals" was recently introduced in the US House of Representatives. Conflict minerals are metals mined in war-torn countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo - that are imported for key elements in electronic products. The bill is designed to create transparency and allow consumers to make informed choices when they purchase electronic devices like cell phones.

Most electronic devices used on a daily basis all over the world contain minerals that are fueling a gruesome war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

U.S. Congressman Jim McDermott says that demand for tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold from the DRC will not stop until consumers have better information about their place of origin.

"The worldwide demand for those minerals will not go away until you and I throw away our blackberries, cell phones and everything else that use these minerals in very small amount," said Jim McDermott.

Congressman McDermott is not saying that consumers should throw away their cell phones. He and others introduced the Conflict Minerals Trade Act to require more information about the metals used in electronic devices.  It also would prohibit US-based companies from importing products containing so-called "conflict minerals." 

McDermott says he wants corporations to stop purchases that incite conflict between armed groups fighting for these minerals.

"The bill will create transparency and allow consumers to make informed choices, and it will make it easier for America to vote for peace not for war in the DRC," he said.

Enough, a project of the liberal Center for American Progress, launched a campaign against conflict minerals. It has released information about the journey of the so called 3 Ts (Tin, Tungsten, Tantalum) and other metals mined in the DRC. John Norris is the organization's executive director:

"We are able to demonstrate the very clear path that minerals take from militia and rebel held areas to middle men often in Uganda and Rwanda, to smelters usually in the Far East and showing there are ways to track these minerals," said John Norris. "And there are effective responses to deal with the problem."

The project worked with 21 of the largest electronics companies to build a consensus. But not all of them are on board yet.

"We've dealt with some companies that are much more progressive or are willing to discuss this issue very seriously with us," he said. "Others have been far less responsive."

He says he will release the list of hold-outs next year. 

As to the bill, the congressman was noncommittal about when it might pass. 

"I am sure when people get an understanding of what this bill is all about, it will move," said Congressman McDermott. "I think it's a very realistic bill so I am optimistic."

The Kimberley Process, regulating conflict diamonds, served as the model for the bill. The process certifies the origins of rough diamonds so diamonds coming from war zones do not reach consumers. Serge Tshamala, Economic Counselor at the DRC Embassy in Washington, welcomes the new bill.

"We are trying to stabilize the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo and we need assistance like this," said Serge Tshamala. " It will also discourage companies from dealing with illegal armed groups who are exploiting these minerals. "

Senator Sam Brownback, a Republican, supports the bill as do humanitarian organizations, advocacy groups and some industry leaders.

This doesn't mean that people will start throwing away their electronic devices tomorrow but the sponsors of the bill hope it's a first step toward responsible consumption.