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Book of Matthew: Conflict-free electronics

Published: April 30, 2010
Section: Opinions


Not since World War II has the world seen a conflict as deadly as the one currently raging in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

It is beyond comprehension. Imagine boys younger the age of 15 being taken from their homes and forced to kill by their abductors—and used as human shields if they are not strong enough to carry weapons.

Imagine groups of men entering villages and brutally raping women and girls in order to intimidate the locals.

Imagine a democratic government that is so corrupt that it is unable to assuage its country’s suffering.

This is one of Africa’s least-fortunate countries. Since 1996, more than 5.5 million people have died and 1.5 million have been displaced internationally as a result of fighting that kills 45,000 each month. Most of the deaths are not due to combat injuries but to malnutrition, malaria, and pneumonia—treatable causes that cannot be addressed in the chaos.

Of the dead, 47 percent are children.

In America, talk of this conflict tends to be pushed aside by talk of more pressing foreign matters—say, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or even the genocide in Darfur. But we must not allow ourselves to forget about the Congo. We are the ones helping to fuel the conflict in the first place.

You might be doing it every day, when you talk on your cell phone or log onto Facebook. I might be doing it as I write this column on my laptop. Brandeis and many other schools might be doing it when they spend thousands of dollars on computer equipment.

We are all consumers of the four main minerals used to make consumer electronics: gold (which is used to coat wiring), tantalum (which stores electricity), tungsten (which makes cell phones vibrate) and tin (which is used to solder circuit boards). Large quantities can be found in the Congo, making it an ideal source. Supplies, however, are controlled by armed groups who illegally tax these minerals and smuggle them to Asian countries, where they are refined and processed into components that are sold worldwide. Meanwhile, these armed groups make millions of dollars that they use to buy weapons and continue the war.

How do we stop this? It certainly wouldn’t hurt to lobby Congress to pass the Congo Conflict Minerals Act, which would require American companies to disclose the origins of the supplies they purchase. This would make it easier for the government to properly inform consumers about these companies’ business practices, allowing us to be wiser purchasers. Of course, since this bill has been stuck in committee since 2009, its only realistic chance of becoming law is if we force our elected representatives to move it forward.

We could also lobby electronics companies directly. Microsoft, Apple, Dell, Nintendo, Panasonic, HP, Nokia and all the other big names need to hear by letter, e-mail and phone call that consumers will only purchase goods that are made from ethically mined and refined minerals. Anything less is an affront to our sense of morality.

At the very least, if you have a little spare time after you finish reading this, you ought to pay a visit to www.raisehopeforcongo.org, where you can read more about the crisis and learn about how you can take action, particularly on college campuses. Need I say that it’s the right thing to do?