How Your iPhone Enables Genocide

You should be commended for taking the time to read about preventing mass atrocity; oh, and gently faulted for helping to fund it. (Don’t be too harsh on yourself, I’m in the same boat.)

Do you see that screen in front of you? Behind it and under your pattering fingers are gold and coltan. If you follow these minerals back to the mines that they came from, there’s a chance you’ll find yourself in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that is as loaded with minerals just as the Middle East is with oil. According to the organization Friends of Congo, the DRC contains 64% of the world’s coltan, which is used in electronic devices for storing the charge. However, as of 2007, an International Rescue Committee study estimated 5.4 million Congolese have been murdered. That number climbs by about 45,000 each month, setting today’s death toll at around 6.9 million, making this the deadliest genocide since World War II. Fueling these deaths is demand for these costly minerals.

Warlords and lawless militias supervise the extraction of valuable minerals in the DRC, smuggle it out of the country, and use the millions they earn from this trafficking to purchase more weapons to prolong the genocide. These armed groups roam the DRC, systematically murdering the population, burning villages, and raping and re-raping the women to intimidate and exact control.

A video produced by the Enough Project features some other conflict minerals hidden in your electronics that are generating funds for these perpetrators of genocide. For instance, your cellphone is abundant with the three Ts-tin, tungsten, and tantalum (which is a part of coltan).

If you’re feeling a bit hopeless now and want to jog off the anxiety, don’t bring your iPod, conflict minerals are in there, too. They’re in most electronics.

You can, however, visit Raise Hope for Congo and petition companies that use these minerals to shop conflict-free.

The DRC shouldn’t be the most depressed country in Africa. If they had a functioning government that protected its people and resources, the DRC would be one of the more self-sufficient nations in the world. Instead, government corruption and militia-fueled chaos keeps the region deadly. Luckily the onus does not rest solely on our individual purchases. It requires leadership from the international community.

Just as the United Nations was created as a response to the Holocaust, from the genocides of the ’90s came the “Responsibility to Protect,” or RtoP, which was authored in 2001 by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) and states that the international community has a responsibility to prevent, react to, and rebuild a nation after genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, or war crimes.

Reaction and rebuilding is necessary to end genocide in the DRC, but ideally we should never allow it to get farther than prevention.

Prevention can be implemented through political, legal, military, and economic tactics. For example, supporting freedom of the press, helping to ration out constitutional power, developing methods to address inequities in the distribution of resources, threatening to end trade or to withdraw aid and investments, improving protection for at-risk groups, or frightening perpetrators with the use force, to name a few.

One justifiable use for RtoP today is Sudan. A report issued by Human Rights Watch this past Sunday warned that the international community must assist in next month’s elections in Sudan as the conditions there are not hospitable to “free, fair, and credible elections.” Freedom of the press, assembly, and speech are in serious jeopardy in Sudan, and violence has often been used to intimidate any opposition to the incumbent president, Omar al-Bashir.

Of course, one argument is that it’s not the free world’s responsibility to bail out suffering nations. But America’s backyard, with 10% unemployment, pales in comparison to a country like Zimbabwe-a candidate for the swift appliance of RtoP-which has a hyper-inflated currency, an 85% unemployment rate, and a quarter of its population forced abroad as economic hardships and government-sponsored violence worsens. As the ICISS report warns, ignoring mass atrocity is always more costly than the price of prevention and early-intervention. Though empathy or sympathy for victims of mass atrocity should be enough to force action, economically speaking, a free world is less threatening to our own pocketbooks and preservation.

Another argument is that RtoP will put state sovereignty at risk. Opponents of the doctrine claim it was misused during France’s forcible attempt to deliver aid to Burma after Cyclone Nargis decimated the country in 2008. (Meanwhile, Burma’s military junta failed to warn its people and prevented aid from reaching its citizens). RtoP, however, acknowledges that the State is sovereign, though as a sovereign States it has the responsibility to protect its population from mass atrocity. If the State is unable or unwilling to keep its population safe, then it is the international community’s job to assist.

The authority to intervene has been left to the United Nation’s Security Council, which has notoriously been slow to act as the five permanent nations of the Council, each with veto power, are tied to their political and economic ideologies. In their RtoP report, ICISS held the Security Council responsible for failing to act in order to prevent genocide in places like Rwanda and Bosnia in 1994 and 1995, respectively. Since RtoP was accepted by the United Nations in 2005, it has continued to miss opportunities to apply the doctrine.

For instance, in 2007, the Security Council failed to address the systematic rapes in Burma, as China and Russia both used their veto to forego the cessation of human rights violations carried out by the military junta.

“[I]f [the Security Council] fails to discharge its responsibility to protect in conscience-shocking situations crying out for action, concerned states may not rule out other means to meet the gravity and urgency of that situation – and that the stature and credibility of the United Nations may suffer thereby,” stated the Commission.

But with or without the Security Council, what is the international community to do?

On March 10, I attended an RtoP panel discussion at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. The five-person panel and small audience wondered just that, but more importantly asked: How do we turn RtoP into reality and how do we prevent it from becoming the soft rhetoric of Never Again?

Most of the panelists spoke of diplomacy, but the one divergent voice belonged to associate professor of law at Columbia Law School, Matthew Waxman. He advocated for the use of enacting military force more readily, which he called “a necessary ingredient to combat mass atrocities and genocide.” Waxman described the UN as an organization that poorly manages mass atrocities and doubted if RtoP would make them any more successful since the ideologies of Russia and China tend to clash with the other three permanent countries with veto power sitting on the Security Council: the United States, United Kingdom, and France.

“Stern lectures don’t stop mass atrocities,” he added.

Professor Sheri Rosenberg a law professor and director of genocide and human rights programs at the Cardozo School of Law commented that if we are all under a “vague obligation” to prevent mass atrocity, then no state will take the initiative to step forward.

I followed up with Professor Rosenberg after the conference to find out where RtoP has been implemented successfully and where our duty to act was clear. Rosenberg cited that the international community’s quick execution of RtoP in Kenya helped stave off increases in ethnic violence and displacements, following the country’s highly contested December 2007 elections.

Mark Schneider, Vice President of the International Crisis Group, however, writes that tensions may rise again as there will be a referendum on proposed constitutional reforms, with mercenary gangs working for political factions and political confrontations abound.

Rosenberg notes that “it’s going to take a long time” to gauge the effectiveness of RtoP, but claimed that it has been the “greatest achievement since Nuremberg… in trying to implement the Never again” philosophy.

The question is, do we have a long time? I’m sure that answer lies somewhere on the Web. You can use your laptop–the one inundated with conflict minerals–to find out.

Noah Lederman writes the travel blog, Somewhere Or Bust. His travel writing has appeared in Chicago Sun-Times, The Economist’s More Intelligent Life, Gadling, and the anthology What We Brought Back.  ...read more

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