By Rowena Mason | The Telegraph
Those “dirty rocks” that caused Naomi Campbell so much trouble with war crimes prosecutors at the Hague don’t tend to fall into the hands of ordinary, non-supermodel folk very often. But before anyone gets too disapproving of the Streatham diva’s diamonds, it’s a fair bet that we all have a variety of “blood minerals” lurking in our pockets and pressed up against our ears.
Most mobile phone parts are made in Asia by American or European companies, but the minerals that go into the electronics, including tin, tantalum and tungsten, are sourced from all over the world.
One of these regions is the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, whose remote reaches are notorious for violence and human rights abuses. Its tin is used to solder electronics; tungsten goes into filaments and the component that helps mobile phones to vibrate; and tantalum holds electrical charge.
Global Witness, the international conflict observer, reports that rebels, militias and army units have hijacked the trade in mineral ores from the eastern Congo. The civilian population has been subject to massacres, forced labour and recruitment of child soldiers.
And it also points out that large international companies are complicit in the trade by buying the minerals, usually after they have been sent through smelters in Malaysia and Rwanda.
In the United States that is all about to change. A little-noticed clause in the new Dodd-Frank financial services bill will make it increasingly difficult for US companies to source their rare minerals from the Congo.
Companies from Hewlett-Packard to Intel will now be required to trace exactly where they got their minerals from and publish a detailed explanation if they are trading with suspect areas in the eastern Congo region.
It has provoked some consternation from the industry group, the Information Technology Industry Council.
The business group argues that while the aims are laudable, it would be complex to carry out. Wired magazine reports that Steve Jobs, the chief executives of Apple, shares this concern about the difficulty of tracing Congolese minerals.
In response to a concerned customer asking whether Apple, the technology company, has tried to stamp out use of the minerals in the iPhone, Jobs replies: “Yes. We require all of our suppliers to certify in writing that they use conflict few materials.
“But honestly, there is no way for them to be sure. Until someone invents a way to chemically trace minerals from the source mine, it’s a very difficult problem.”
Another argument is over whether the new law will stop the mineral trade with the Congo altogether – not just illicit mining – which could put legitimate mines out of work and send workers into the arms of the rebel groups.
Campaigners believe this is fairly unlikely. Armed groups and the Congolese army control nearly all the trade in tin ore, gold, columbite-tantalite and wolframite. Reports from the region suggest these elements are illegally levying taxes and have turned the region into a lawless area over which they exert mafia-style control.
Over in the UK, there is no such momentum to crack down on “conflict minerals”.
Accordingly, Global Witness is currently suing the UK Government for its failure to name and shame British companies that do business with mineral traders.
The Government has the power to recommend sanctions against companies that breach United Nations guidelines on trading “conflict minerals”, but so far, it never has done.
The Foreign Office insists that it expects all British companies in the minerals sector in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to “follow high standards of due diligence, and to make every effort to establish the route through which the minerals they buy have passed.”
It adds: “We will continue to take reports that they are not doing so seriously, and will assess in each case whether there are grounds to consider recommending to UN partners that sanctions measures be imposed, or supporting proposals for listings made by other states,”
“Bringing DRC’s natural resources more fully under state control is a key theme of our work in the country. We support a number of projects to establish better management of the country’s minerals, and are looking to deepen our involvement in this area.”
It is more likely the American law will make a difference – and is already becoming a cause célèbre among the ethically conscious consumer.
Like pressure on retailers to reject sweat-shop clothes and chocolate makers to go Fairtrade, the “blood phone” campaign has the potential to ring a tone of protest in the ears of electronics manufacturers.