The civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo has been fought since 1994, when Hutu rebels crossed the border from Rwanda following the genocide there. With Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola all involved to this day, the conflict is currently the deadliest ongoing conflict in the world. Eastern Congo, controlled by armed rebels, is home to a vast range of minerals, including tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold. Due to their role in funding the conflict, they are known as ‘conflict minerals’. Conflict minerals are passed along a complex supply chain, leaving the DRC illegally. From smelters in Asia and Europe, they eventually end up as the capacitors, resistors and solders in a range of our daily products, from portable electronics to medical devices.
The issue of conflict minerals recently resurfaced when Activision Blizzard, the world’s largest interactive gaming company, announced that a detailed inquiry into its supply chain led it to conclude it had no reason to believe that its use of minerals contributed to funding armed conflict.
Conflict Minerals and the Gaming Industry
Although most gaming companies manage to avoid conflict minerals as they are not required to produce game discs, companies that make hardware or high-tech toys do use the minerals under question. Conflict minerals also pose problems for multinational corporations that produce games alongside other products.
Following its announcement, Activision Blizzard stated: ‘as part of our commitment to corporate responsibility and respecting human rights in our own operations and in our global supply chain, it is our goal to use tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold in our products that do not directly or indirectly finance or benefit armed groups in the Covered Countries, while continuing to support responsible mineral sourcing in the region’.
However, it appears that Activision Blizzard is the most advanced of the sector’s companies in accounting for its supply chain. The main problem preventing companies from identifying the presence of conflict minerals in their supply chain is that several layers of sub-tier suppliers have to be identified before one finally gets down to smelters, refiners, and mines where the origin of the materials can be determined, as Microsoft stated. Thus, both the time and cost required for contacting suppliers, collecting data, and fully documenting traces of conflict minerals in supply chains can be immense. Moreover, gathering accurate information may simply be impossible, given that raw minerals are passed off from the conflict zone with unreliable, falsified, or simply non-existent documentation.
Section 1502 of the US Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires all publicly traded companies listed with the Securities and Exchange Commission to report on the presence of conflict minerals contained within their products. Put in action in July 2010, the purpose of the section is to disclose the source of conflict minerals and dissuade companies from continuing to engage in trade acts that support armed conflict.
Conflict Minerals and Slavery
It is ironic that conflict minerals are accused of playing a prominent role in youth-led industries while also having a detrimental effect on the Congolese youth. It is widely believed that armed groups that engage in mining operations and the sale of conflict minerals to finance conflict in Congo subject workers and the wider population to human rights abuses. Without doubt, many of them are children that have no educational opportunities.
Foremost among these human rights abuses are various forms of slavery. Some victims are rounded up at gunpoint by armed groups and put to work, with no payment or freedom of movement and deadly force used against resistors. Others are forced to work by family members who are trapped in debt bondage slavery. In a third form of slavery, victims are captured in a peonage system, in which the individual is arrested with no legal grounds and put to work as punishment or because they cannot pay a fine. The ages of child victims range from 5 to 17.
What Needs to be Done?
The main issue is not that companies are ignoring the presence of conflict minerals in their supply chains, but that companies are not aware of the origins of their resources. Indeed, reports from companies such as Microsoft and Sony, show that they have blurred understandings of their own supply chains.
The difficulty of tracing supply chains has been acknowledged by a range of organizations. The OECD has provided the only international framework to help companies in the process, which was developed with in-depth engagement from the OECD and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region member states, civil society and industry representatives, as well as United Nations experts. In the ‘Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas’, they have designed Guidance to help company managements avoid contributing to conflict through their purchasing practices, suggesting the following five steps:
- Establish strong management systems
- Identify and assess risk in the supply chain
- Design and implement a strategy to respond to identified risks
- Carry out independent third-party audit of smelters/refiners’ due diligence practices
- Report annually on supply chain due diligence
Moreover, through its supplements on Tin, Tantalum, Tungsten and Gold, the Guidance provides a complete package for companies to source minerals responsibly in a way that supports peace. As of August 2012, US Securities and Exchange Commission recognizes the OECD Guidance as an international framework.
The persistence of the conflict has brought about a generation of young people of which very few have been schooled. There is also, crucially, little opportunity for them to take up jobs even if they were qualified. With the continuance of fighting relying on conflict minerals, tomorrow’s youth will not be able to escape the fate of today’s. To secure the future of the Congolese youth, it is essential that further steps are taken to avoid conflict minerals in the production of our everyday goods.