Is Your Cell Phone Funding the World's Worst War?

Here's why Intel's CES announcement about going 'conflict mineral'–free is changing the technology game.

A child displaced by fighting among Democratic Republic of Congo troops is photographed on Nov. 4, 2013. (Junior D. Kannah/AFP/Getty Images)

Jan 9, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Melissa Rayworth is a regular contributor to TakePart. She has also written for the Associated Press, Salon and Babble.

Even on the quiet days, the threat of violence surrounds children growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many are hungry. They have been displaced from their homes by brutal violence. Disease is common, and rape is a weapon, though aid workers do all they can to offer assistance.

Life in this African nation, described by the International Rescue Committee as "the world’s least-developed country in terms of life expectancy, education, standard of living, and key health indicators," is unlike anything most of us will ever experience.

It all may seem too far away to understand, and too complicated do anything about.

And yet, each of us has probably played some role in funding the very violence that has made life in the Congo nearly unbearable since the 1990s.

Traces of the Congo may be found in the smartphone in your pocket, or that tablet in your backpack, or all the other electronic gadgets you have bought and discarded over the past decade. Tucked inside them are minerals mined, in some cases through forced labor, in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa, including Sudan's wartorn region of Darfur, and Rwanda. Traces of these "conflict minerals" can likely be found in your home, and in just about every home in America.

Experts say the money many of these mining operations earn helps fund the violence tearing apart this region.

Here's the good news: Awareness of the problem is rising, legislation is forcing transparency, and a handful of electronics makers are leading the transition to conflict-free electronics.

Still, as recently as this week, industry lobbyists argued in court that conflict minerals should continue to be used, unreported and unregulated.

That's why an industry leader's announcement this week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas matters so much.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said that the company has begun shipping conflict-free microprocessors. The company has created a system of auditing its supply chain to track the origin of minerals used in production, which has been a significant obstacle to verification, and it has worked to create a system of certifying that the smelting plants it does business with are free of conflict minerals.

"Two years ago, I told several colleagues that we needed a hard goal, a commitment to reasonably conclude that the metals used in our microprocessors are conflict-free," Intel's Krzanich said during his CES presentation.

"We felt an obligation to implement changes in our supply chain to ensure that our business and our products were not inadvertently funding human atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo," he continued. "Even though we have reached this milestone, it is just a start. We will continue our audits and resolve issues that are found."

Intel's announcement is "a real landmark achievement that hopefully the Samsungs and the Apples will follow," says Sasha Lezhnev, senior policy analyst at the Enough Project, which has drawn attention to the problem of conflict minerals.

Lezhnev says it's especially encouraging that the auditing system created by Intel can be used by other companies to do the same due diligence in making sure their suppliers and smelters aren't using conflict minerals.

This is likely to make it harder for other companies to claim that tackling the conflict minerals problem is just too difficult.

But industry lobbyists argued just that in federal appeals court this week. They are objecting to the Conflict Minerals Rule, which requires publicly traded companies to report their use of conflict minerals to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission beginning in May.

This rule, put into effect in 2012 as part of the Dodd-Frank Act, doesn't say these companies can't use conflict minerals. It only requires them to disclose this usage publicly.

Opponents of the rule claim that scouring a corporation's supply chain to prevent the use of conflict minerals would be prohibitively difficult and expensive. It may take months for this appeal to receive a court ruling, but Intel's progress seems to have already proved that transparency and even eradication are achievable goals.

As consumers become more aware of this issue, manufacturers may have no choice but to address the problem.

"This week's announcement from Intel is a wake-up call, and more and more companies should start to take this on," says Lezhnev, who points out that a recent KPMG study of consumers found that as many as 35 percent of young people were aware of the issue.

"This is a growing issue for consumers," Lezhnev says. "No company wants to be associated with the world's worst war."