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What’s happening in Congo?

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the poorest country in the world, yet is incredibly rich in natural resources including minerals that are used in the making of mobile phones and other electronic products.

The problem is that Congo’s natural resources have driven atrocities and conflict rather than benefiting its citizens. In eastern Congo mineral resources are financing multiple armed groups, many of whom use mass rape as a deliberate strategy to intimidate and control local populations, thereby securing control of mines, trading routes, and other strategic areas. Millions have died as a result of conflict in Congo over a number of years.

What’s this got to do with the telecoms industry?

Profit from the minerals trade is one of the main motives for armed groups in Congo. They earn hundreds of millions of dollars per year by trading so called ‘conflict minerals’ – the ores that produce tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold. This money enables them to buy large numbers of weapons and continue their campaign of brutal violence against civilians. The majority of these minerals wind up in electronic devices such as mobile phones and laptops. About half of all tin is used in solder and the major use for tantalum is in capacitors, particularly in portable equipment such as mobile phones.

What is the telecoms industry doing?

Suppliers of telecoms equipment have been working for several years to understand their supply chains back to the mines in Congo. The supply chains are complex and some companies are further ahead in this process than others. Whilst no supplier is yet able to verify that they have entirely eliminated conflict minerals from their products, progress is being made.

In addition to company level corporate responsibility programmes, industry initiatives are co-ordinated through GeSI and EICC. The work of these groups includes compiling the list of conflict free smelters. These are smelters of mineral ores that have been verified as only using minerals from conflict free sources.

What else do can the telecoms industry do?

Simply boycotting minerals from Congo altogether would not help as this is a key industry for the country with the potential to lift its people out of poverty. To help citizens of Congo benefit from their country’s natural resources companies need to keep using minerals from Congo but make sure the revenues don’t end up flowing to armed groups.

Fortunately, the UN and OECD have established clear supply chain standards for companies to help achieve this. These require companies to undertake thorough due diligence on their supply chains to ensure that conflict minerals do not end up in their products. This includes auditing their suppliers, not just taking their assurances on conflict minerals at face value.

Companies listed in the US will also in the future have to comply with regulations (under the Dodd-Frank Act) requiring them to disclose whether they are using conflict minerals.

How can telecoms professionals help?

It is not often that telecoms professionals can play a positive role in a deadly conflict without going to work in a war zone. By supporting the move towards  conflict free telecoms products, you can ensure this remains a priority and so help the people of DRC to benefit from their natural resources. If you are involved in the procurement of electronic equipment then you can go further and press your suppliers to show how they are avoiding the use of conflict minerals.

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