Violence In Congo Leaves No Excuses For Target, Wal-Mart
It sounds like the Holocaust—and it is a holocaust of sorts—but this is happening today instead of seven decades ago. And it's happening in one African nation instead of across the European continent.
Six million is the estimated number of human lives lost since a devastating civil war broke out in Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1996, and the death toll rises every day. Two million Congolese now live as refugees, and hundreds of thousands more have been raped or sexually assaulted.
But here's the thing. Congo's war officially ended in 2003, almost ten years ago. The fight has gone off the books, because it isn't about politics anymore.
It's about minerals. The Congolese people are hopelessly caught up in the biggest, deadliest, most terrifying scramble for natural resources the world has ever seen. And the violence—the death, the rape, and the displacement—continues because the minerals found in Congo are some of the most financially lucrative in the world. We should know. We're paying for them.
It works like this. Armed militia groups terrorize Congolese villages, kill their men, rape their women, and enslave the survivors—many of them young children—in local mines, which are of course thrown in with the deal. These mines bring in hundreds of millions of dollars a year on the sale of just four minerals: tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold. These four minerals, aptly known as “conflict minerals” when obtained under these circumstances, are crucial components of all kinds of things Westerners love—canned food, fashion jewelry, pacemakers, drills—but none more important than electronic devices.
Almost every single electronic device that you buy has at least one of these minerals in it. Cellphones, laptops and desktops have all four. And while we would like to think that the manufacturers of these devices are exercising discretion about where exactly those minerals come from, historically that hasn't been the case.
The good news is that extensive lobbying (sometimes from the likes of Ryan Gosling) has finally driven America to do something about it. The bad news is that two of America's biggest electronics retailers, Target and Wal-Mart, don't care.
In 2010, a group of lawmakers realized that they were tired of ignoring mass murder in Africa for the third time in twenty years, and included a provision on conflict minerals in the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform Act. The rule, however, only took effect last Wednesday, when the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) finally agreed to implement it.
Rule 1502, as it is officially known, requires that public companies report on the use of conflict minerals in the products they sell. The SEC is not requiring the first reports until May of 2014, giving companies almost two years to audit and, if they so choose, clean up their mineral supply chains. But that wasn't good enough for Target, Wal-Mart and several other big retailers who claim that such investigation is not their responsibility.
Thanks to their lobbying efforts, these retailers are expected to be exempt from Rule 1502, on the grounds that they cannot control what manufacturers put into the products they sell.
An exemption on these grounds, of course, doesn't actually make any sense. The argument made by the retailers has no more credibility than an individual saying they can't control what goes in their body because they don't manufacture the products they eat.
Target, Wal-Mart and other retailers have the power to practice selective purchasing, just as individuals do. They can choose to only sell electronics manufactured by companies making efforts to keep conflict minerals out of their products. In fact, the SEC isn't even asking them to go as far as that. The companies just have to report on whether the conflict minerals are being used. Target doesn't have to stop selling Electronic Company X's products—all they have to do is ask X where their minerals come from. Which shouldn't be difficult at all, because X, as a manufacturer and not a retailer, can't wriggle out of the conflict minerals rule on a technicality, and thus will have to collect such information anyway.
In his statement on Rule 1502, Jonathan Gold, National Retail Federation vice president for supply chain and customs policy, wrote:
“While retailers abhor the violence in the Congo, compliance with these regulations could still be extremely difficult and there is considerable debate on whether filing reports with the SEC will make any difference.”
Again, the "difficulty" part is a sham, because we already know that any product a retailer sells with a potential for containing conflict minerals would come from a company that already has to examine its own supply chain.
More importantly, however, Gold's statement is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The SEC reports won't make any difference if companies do not allow them to motivate a change in their practices, and certainly not if companies do not even bother to make them in the first place. The success of provisions like Rule 1502 depends on a chain of accountability, just like retailers depend on a chain of suppliers to procure their products. And just like the supply chain, the accountability chain starts with retailers making a demand of their suppliers.
Then again, one could also say the supply chain begins with us—the consumers—making a demand of the retailers who sell us these products.
If Target and Wal-Mart don't want to step up and help put an end to the deadliest conflict since World War II, to spare millions from the depraved life of a refugee, and to help reconstruct a nation now known as the rape capital of the world, perhaps it is in our own hands.
Perhaps accountability begins with us, stepping up and demanding retailers sell us conflict-free products.
Perhaps then they will understand this problem is about more than their convenience.
For more information on the conflict minerals crisis, visit this website.
Contact Contributor Francesca Bessey here for information on how to become involved at USC in the movement to eliminate conflict minerals.