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The Only Thing That’s Changed is Nothing” – Apple, Obama and the War With Conflict Minerals

Last month saw the release of Apple’s latest iPhone. The company claims that the iPhone 6s is the most advanced smartphone in the world, stating:

“The only thing that’s changed is everything”

However this is not strictly true. Despite claims by Apple to increase the number of conflict free products, the company remains entangled alongside other electronic giants in a long standing debate over its use of tantalum (mined as coltan) – a “conflict mineral” from the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Through their sale, this group of minerals act to economically fuel the conflicts taking place, leading to claims such as Prendergast’s:

“There are few other conflicts in the world where the link between our consumer appetites and mass human suffering is so direct.”

The debate over the sourcing and trade of conflict minerals has veen taking place for years with very little change taking place. Yet with the release of 17 new Sustainable Development Goals and elections due to take place in DRC during 2016, this period offers an opportunity to rigorously reassess current approaches to the issue of conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Congo’s “Golden Ticket”

Beneath the surface of the Democratic Republic of Congo lie some of the most mineral rich soils on earth. This bank of natural wealth, which could be a much needed economic asset to a nation currently occupying second to last place on the Human Development Index, has instead become a major contributing factor in the country’s long and bloodied history. The term “conflict minerals” describes a set of minerals mined in conditions of armed conflict and human rights abuses, which are then sold or traded by armed groups. The minerals are mined in the eastern part of the DRC and include coltan, cobalt, cobber, cassiterite, wolframite, gold and diamonds. The vast majority of these minerals are mined by 1 to 2 million artisanal or subsistence miners, who in turn support a larger network of up to 12 million dependents.

“This Century’s Bloodiest War”

Since 1996 over five million people have died in the ongoing conflicts taking place in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the highest death pole in a conflict since the Second World War. While conflict minerals have been correctly affiliated with these conflicts, it is important to draw the distinction between the part they play as a cause or as a facilitator. Minerals are rarely the cause of the fighting taking place in the eastern part of the DRC. In fact, reportedly only 8% of the conflicts are over access to natural resources.”Efforts to pass legislation are based on the mistaken assumption that because mineral trade is one dynamic in some of the region’s conflicts, this means minerals cause conflicts… minerals were not the origin of the conflict in the Congo.”

None-the-less, conflict minerals do play a significant role in abetting the conflict economy in eastern DRC, and thus should be considered highly relevant to discourse seeking to reconcile and resolve conflicts currently taking place in the region.

The multifaceted nature of conflict minerals make them a difficult enigma to entangle and discuss. At the crux of the issue lie the conflicts themselves, a chaotic mix of factions each with their own distinct motives. “The Congo War’s of the 1990s and their aftermath are widely regarded as some of the most complex and egregious conflicts of our time.” The simultaneously occurring conflicts between several militia take place in a region twice the size of France. In the north and south areas of the Kivu province alone, there are no less than 70-80 armed groups currently in action. The armed groups include a motley of militias with factions from adjoining countries such as Rwanda, local groups, as well parts of the Congolese army – the FARDC. The Democratic Republic of Congo plays host to MONUSCO, the United Nation’s longest and most expensive peacekeeping operation in the history of the organization. Figures from 2014 placed the total cost at $8.73 billion USD invested in what has heavily been criticised as a hugely expensive failure. The main reason cited for its failure has been the initial inability to recognize the root causes of the violence taking place: namely local disputes over land, power, influence, citerzenship and identity.

In the United Nations’ defence, it cannot be stated strongly enough that the lack of governance and infrastructure in the DRC majorly undermines any progress made. This vacuum of structure means that militia groups are able to act unimpeded, with no fear of consequences. “The armed groups saw themselves as outside the law – no one could control them.” In this context of lawlessness it is not suprising that the UN has been able to make very little progress.

The Frank-Dodd Act

Awareness of the economic relationship between mineral trade and armed conflict has been active in the West for well over a decade, but the increasing recognition of the link between conflict minerals and electronics reached its height in the years running up to 2010. Epitomized in an article published by the Enough Group entitled “Can You Hear Congo Now? Cell Phones, Conflict Minerals, and the Worst Sexual Violence in the World”. The contributors called for consumers to campaign, targeting President Obama, Electronics companies and Congress in a bid “to end the atrocities once and for all”.

The Frank-Dodd Act was signed into Congress in July 2010. The legislation sought to “promote the financial security of the United States by improving accountability and transparency in the financial system.” It included within it Section 1502, enacted by Congress due to “concerns that the exploitation and trade of these metals by armed groups was helping to finance conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and is to contributing to an emergency humanitarian crisis.” Section 1502 requires companies registered on the US stock market to report annually whether the minerals used in their products are sourced from the eastern DRC and surrounding countries and if so, to report on the due diligence undertaken on the supply chain.

The result has seen various initiatives seeking to trace the source of the minerals, sifting through the numerous tiers in the supply chain. However the process is slow and expensive. US publicly traded companies spent around $709 million USD and a combined six million working hours in 2014 in order to comply with the necessary requirements disclosing conflict minerals in their supply chains.

An Open Letter written in 2014 and signed by 70 Congolese and Congo experts assessed the policy response to the discourse on conflict minerals and addressed various shortcomings in the Frank-Dodd Act. The letter states that, despite the successes of activists in shaping policy, the conflict minerals campaign fundementally misunderstands the relationship between minerals and conflict in eastern DRC. It claims that: “Armed groups are not dependent on mineral revenue for their existence. The eastern DRC is a fully militarized economy, in which minerals are just one resource among many that armed groups… can levy financing from.The M23, until recently the most powerful non-state armed group in DRC, never sought physical control over mining activity.”

The letter also criticizes section 1502 on the grounds that few local stakeholders were involved in the policy making, both at the time of the act and since. As a result the realities on the ground have not always been taken into account. Four years on from Frank-Dodd, the signatories of the letter discovered that only a small fraction of mining sites have received accredited certification and that the overwhelming majority of mining companies were, largely due to poor roads and the huge geographical expanse, being excluded from legal access to the international markets. Finding no failsafe implemented structure in place with which to guarantee the minerals they were buying weren’t financing conflict meant that many companies made the decision to go “Congo free”. This has had far reaching consequences, permeating throughout whole economic networks. School fees can no longer be paid, haircuts, new clothes – any inessential expenditure is stopped. Miners who can no longer earn a legal living through mining are faced with severely limited options. Many trade minerals illegally, some join militias to earn quick cash; neither option acts to improve the conflict situations as they stand. Any progress made by international efforts is further diluted by problems of internal corruption amongst powerful parties operating within DRC with sizable sums of revenue disappearing into the pockets of the “kleptocratic elite”.

Potential for Change?

In the years since the Frank-Dodd Act more attempts have been made to better address the difficulties in the mining and trade of minerals from eastern DRC. Policy-wise, the European Union introduced a voluntary conflict minerals regulation scheme in 2011 aimed at its members and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Recent efforts, such as those of groups such as “Better Sourcing” and the George Clooney/John Prendergast initiative “The Sentry” demonstrate an ongoing desire to tackle the enormously complicated subject. Traceability continues to be the buzz-word however a better awareness of the contextual holdbacks means there is more promise of meaningful results. However setbacks continue to present themselves: attempts to pass legislation allowing the concealment of conflict mineral sourcing may reverse any achievements made in the traceability movement. Oversimplified mass media coverage, berated by experts as being misinformed and unrepresentative, remains for many of the general public their first and last source of information.

The DRC still holds huge economic potential, with estimates from the International Monetary Fund predicting a 9.2% projected GDP growth in 2015. Advancement in mobile phone technology shows no signs of slowing and figures detailing iPhone 6s sales, which have broken the company’s sales records demonstrate a huge market of people willing to pay out for the latest technology. All parties agree that better handling of conflict minerals is an important step towards negotiating an abate in the violent unrest.

“It’s a company’s responsibility to source responsibility. It’s a government’s obligation to provide security and provide the basic needs for the population. It’s up to civil society to provide oversight and raise awareness on issues.”

Unless serious governmental reform takes place, any achievements made in this area will prove futile in solving the larger outlying issues. Elections due to take place next year have the potential to quote Apple: “change everything”. Whether this is for better or indeed for worse, we will have to wait and see.     

Author Biography

Hannah Taylor is a Social Anthropology graduate from the University of Sussex. Brought up in South Africa by British parents, later moving back to the UK at the age of 10; this early experience began a love of travel and different cultures and can be seen as the root of her love of the Anthropology of Africa. She also has strong interests in conflict and resolution, sustainability and women and youth in development. Hannah is pursuing a career in journalism complimenting it with anthropology, blending the two professions to present a culturally considered view of the world.You can find her on Twitter as @fieldscribe

*Cover image ‘Conflict minerals 7‘ by ENOUGH Project


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