When you bought your laptop for college, you probably admired that sleek new MacBook Pro, weighing it against the more familiar PC. You compared prices, looked at software and ultimately made a decision. But did you ever think about how your laptop was made?
The production of laptops and other electronics is directly linked to bloody conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where minerals required for computer production are being extracted amidst warfare. The war in the Congo began in 1996, triggered by the flight of refugees after the Rwandan genocide as well as the collapse of the Congolese state. Despite the signing of a peace deal in 2002 and successful elections in 2006, several dozen armed groups continue to terrorize local communities, particularly in the eastern Kivus region. Since the beginning of 2009, 1.2 million people have been displaced and thousands killed. The United Nations has recorded 7,500 rapes in the first six months of this year alone. 5.4 million people have died as a result of the conflict, making this war the deadliest since World War II.
Most armed actors, including units of the Congolese army, make millions of dollars each year from the mineral economy, primarily by taxing the trade of tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold. The U.N. Security Council has said that these minerals are “one of the main factors fueling and exacerbating conflicts in the Great Lakes region of Africa.” The militarization of the mining sector prevents effective security-sector reform and undermines sustainable peace-building efforts in the Congo.
The disturbing reality is that businesses in the United States and elsewhere play a role in perpetuating the conflict. Electronics companies around the world purchase minerals from eastern Congo — minerals that end up in our cell phones, MP3 players, cameras and maybe even that laptop you bought before college.
The Congolese conflict is complex; it did not start because of minerals, nor will tackling this problem alone end the fighting. However, making the minerals trade more transparent and accountable could not only help bring an end to the conflict, but would also promote sustainable economic growth, strengthen Congolese state institutions and reduce corruption in the security services.
Electronics companies have few ways of determining the exact source of their minerals and thus may unknowingly finance armed rebel groups. Amidst growing concerns about a lack of corporate responsibility, President Obama signed a bill into law in July that requires American companies to report what measures they have taken to exclude conflict minerals from their supply chain. While a crucial first step, the bill lacks any punitive measures for companies that do, in fact, source “conflict minerals” from the Congo.
Unless substantial pressure is applied on the private sector, electronic companies will not put the necessary safeguards in place. Reports from the Congo indicate that companies will conduct due diligence on the cheap, relying on unsubstantiated verbal assurances. However, U.N. and NGO investigators have shown that it is, in fact, possible for companies to identify traders linked to abusive armed groups.
Investors can apply this much-needed pressure on businesses. Several universities, most notably Stanford, have already begun to re-evaluate their investment links to conflict minerals.
Historically, Yale has taken the lead on social responsibility, and it should join this growing movement by taking a stance against conflict minerals. From 1978 through 1994, Yale divested from 17 companies involved in South African apartheid. More recently, in 2006, Yale divested from seven oil and gas companies operating in genocide-wracked Sudan. Yale should engage with companies operating in eastern Congo to set up internal oversight mechanisms and to avoid unscrupulous traders. If these businesses fail to take concrete steps toward due diligence, Yale should consider divestment.
Corporate ignorance or inaction cannot continue to justify prolonging and fueling a devastatingly lethal conflict. As students, consumers and investors, we must recognize that we too have a responsibility to be diligent about the costs associated with our own purchases.
We hope that next time you buy a new laptop, you will take a moment to think about where the story of your electronics begins — with the minerals trade in eastern Congo.
Sara Egozi is a junior in Morse College and the president of the New Haven Alliance for the Congo. Liza Starr is a sophomore in Calhoun College and the co-coordinator of Yale STAND .