October 5, 2010

Going Conflict-Free

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This column was co-written with Alex Bores ’13, Chris Dobyn ’12 and Nathaniel Houghton ’11, who are also the co-authors of Student Assembly Resolution 2, which discourages the use of conflict minerals.

What if we told you that every Cornellian contributes to the deadliest conflict since World War II?

It’s not a well-known conflict like Darfur or the Iraq War; it’s the conflict and humanitarian crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to the International Rescue Committee, violence in this region has resulted in the deaths of 5.4 million people in the past 12 years. This violence has persisted since the outbreak of ethnic conflict following the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Armed groups in the Congo generate hundreds of millions a year through the trade of what is known as the 3 T’s — tin, tantalum, tungsten — and gold. All of these metals, particularly tantalum, find their way into technological devices that we use each and everyday.

The link between minerals and continuing violence has been reported on by the Enough Project, the United Nations Security Council Panel of Experts, the New York Times, the United States Federal Government and numerous other respected organizations. Armed groups mine, force others to mine, transport, tax, sell minerals and trade ores that produce metals and use the money for personal wealth and also to purchase weapons to inflict brutal violence upon civilians. Technology companies utilize these metals in the production of their latest devices. These companies have admitted in press releases and public statements that they use conflict minerals in their products.

Thus, the laptop in your dorm room, the Blackberry in your pocket, or the iPod in your backpack likely contains conflict minerals. Manufacturers simply trust those suppliers that insist that their metals did not originate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unfortunately, such an approach is far from full-proof. The reality is that the Congo is responsible for up to 50 percent of the global supply of tantalum, a portion of which operates in electronics manufactured by companies like Apple and Intel according to the Enough Project.

Conflict minerals aren’t the sole cause of the violence, but they are a factor in helping to continue the violence. Fighting in the region began because of ideology and land issues, but today those issues are not the primary drivers of the violence. Power and self-preservation of the armed groups and that alone is the reason for violence today. These armed groups are consumed by the need to control communities and mines in order to make money and survive. Armed groups terrorize, massacre and rape civilians in an effort to control these mines, communities and trading routes. Congo is considered the rape capital of the world.

By greatly reducing the market for conflict minerals, regional governments and the international community can then address the other issues that the Congo faces. The conflict-mineral campaign is not an attempt at solving the conflict in the Congo in its own right, but instead it is an effort to create an environment where the other factors can effectively be addressed and solutions can be achieved.

We certainly do not have to abstain from technology, but we must take steps to ensure that we no longer support companies that incorporate conflict minerals into their projects.  Companies will only require more transparency from suppliers if they see that it benefits their bottom line. Cornell University, with over $50 million per year allocated to Cornell Information Technologies, is in a position to call upon companies they do business with to report their effort(s) to avoid using conflict minerals from the Congo.

Our suggestions:

1. The University should call on electronic companies to take the necessary steps to remove conflict minerals from their supply chain.

2. The University should factor whether electronic products contain conflict minerals in future purchasing decisions, as reported by the Securities and Exchange Commission, and, when available, will favor verifiably conflict-free products.

3. The Office of University Investments Investment Committee should invest only in businesses that are conflict free. This is similar to a move made by President Skorton at the beginning of his tenure when the well-known Darfur crisis was at the height of the public consciousness.

4. The University should convey their support for conflict-free companies to the U.S. higher education community, and urge them to do the same.

A provision in the recently signed Financial Regulatory Reform Bill requires that companies submit an annual report to the Securities and Exchange Commission disclosing whether their products contain gold, tin, tantalum or tungsten from the Congo or nearby areas. With Congress and the White House behind it, it’s time for Cornell to get behind this campaign. If we were to make this move in response to the lesser-known, but more deadly Congo crisis, Cornell, as well as Stanford, would be the only universities in the United States to have done so. As a leader in research and education, Cornell has an excellent opportunity to help influence technology consumers throughout the United States and limit support for a devastating war.  It’s exactly the type of opportunity that a progressive university like ours should take.

George Hornedo is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at gah72@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: George Hornedo