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Mikhail Bell January 11, 2012
While millions of Americans added smartphones to their Christmas lists, few consumers understood the heavy price others pay to produce our favorite electronics. Sojourners chief Jim Wallis sent this message loud and clear during a December 19 address at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.. Sponsored by the Brookings Institution and Global Witness, the event was intended to examine anti-conflict mineral provisions in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. Wallis provided a lunchtime keynote speech.
Noted for its language about financial reform, Dodd-Frank also quietly set its sights on conflict minerals. As Jim Willis intimated, the most egregious violations of good faith business transactions have occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in west central Africa. As Africa’s second largest nation, according to the U.S. State Department, the DRC is "about the size of the U.S. east of the Mississippi."
Paramilitary groups in the DRC traffic in tin, tantalum, and tungsten, known as the Three T's. The profits fuel regional conflicts and facilitate further human rights abuses. Gold is another commonly traded resource. The Three T’s and gold are core ingredients for virtually all of our favorite electronics. During a 2009 campaign against conflict minerals, John Prendergast, co-founder of the Enough Project, explained: "Tantalum stores electricity in your phone...Tungsten makes your phone vibrate. And Tin is used as a solder on circuit boards. Congo has a lot of tin. Gold is used to coat the wiring and it's the highest value metal inside every cellphone and laptop."
Bribes and warlords facilitate the minerals’ movement from DRC through Uganda and Rwanda before they arrive at assembly factories in Southeast Asia. Once shipped to profitable international markets, conflict minerals are virtually untraceable. Echoing oft-repeated defenses ("All I am is the consumer. It's not my job. I'm not breaking any rules."), Wallis exalted socially responsible shopping. "There's really no moral excuse” not to shop more responsibly, he concluded.
Wallis cited the Good Samaritan parable for an exemplary paradigm to guide conscientious consumption. President Obama's sometime spiritual adviser compared disaffected consumers to the equally morally indifferent priest and Levite who shunned the wounded traveler, believing their job was only "at the end of the road." Wallis laid blame squarely at the feet of all involved, saying, "the fact that we benefit from the supply chain makes us responsible, not once, but twice over."
In his call to action, Wallis declared: "We're all God's children, so that a high school student in America, or the young kid working in dangerous conditions in the mines of eastern Congo... And that... can bring us together."
But the DRC's problems extend beyond perfidious financial and military dealings. It is also rife with war rape and sex trafficking. Various paramilitary groups, when ravaging eastern DRC villages, regularly enslave young girls and women along with capturing vital resources. As with Japan’s "comfort women” in World War II, female captives are forced into commercial sex acts by "gangs, and brothel owners." According to several accounts, they are prostituted in tents or huts where soldiers and local merchants pay for time with them.
In July 2006 the DRC government signed anti-trafficking legislation, which included "sexual slavery, sex trafficking, child and forced prostitution, and pimping," according to a 2011 State Department report. On paper the law is progressive. In the U.S. such laws, which protect child victims of commercial sex from arrest, are called safe harbor laws. Sadly, the DRC government effectively crippled the new law by not issuing "necessary decrees" and restricting a vital "funding allotment." The same report cited the February 2011 arrest of a man in the DRC who trafficked two 12-year-old girls to Angola, presumably for commercial sexual exploitation. He previously had sold two girls of similar age "for $600 each."
With a population of 72 million, the DRC is a Tier 3 "source and destination" country in which trafficking mostly occurs in all of its 11 provinces. Tier 3 is the worst rating for countries in the annual Trafficking in Persons Report. The Report bluntly assessed DRC efforts to combat human trafficking: "[The DRC] does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so." Most indications suggest government resources are allocated to restoring peace and reintegrating former child soldiers, who are also considered trafficked persons.
The unfavorable prospects for change in Congo seemed to only expand Wallis' call for additional resources. He urged heightened awareness among consumers, faith leaders, and advocates. "Our neighbor is not defined by geographical proximity. Our neighbor is the person in need, wherever they are." The "natural wealth" of the DRC "should benefit the people who live there." Wallis may be right but action must follow his rousing admonitions.
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