You’ve no doubt heard about blood diamonds by now and are vaguely familiar with this concept. What you may or may not be aware of is that several other products have blood on them as well.
The term “conflict resources” refers to natural resources that are exploited and traded through conflict situations or whose exploitation helps finance human rights abuses or other such violations. In some cases, companies obtain licenses to extract metals, minerals or other raw materials from a country at war or in conflict from militias or warlords who have no legal claim to that resource; or they may have helped those militias with logistics to fight other armies or militias; or paid them for unregulated materials that may have been mined or worked by essentially slave labour; or used militias to slaughter or displace the rightful owners to the resource making it available for exploitation; or other such abuses.
There are many resources that we may use each and every day that have this type of blood on them, including metals, timber, coffee, oranges, chocolate, uranium, and gems, among other things. Several organizations are doing a great deal to bring awareness to “blood phones”, and the particular problem of coltan extraction in the DR Congo, where the problem of conflict resources is perhaps the most extreme. What most aren’t bringing to light is that many other products are produced in much the same way and that this is not only happening in the DR Congo, but is also common in diverse places around the globe including (but not limited to) Peru, Guatemala, Zimbabwe and China.
These awareness campaigns have put pressure on several governments and companies to take action for change, but unfortunately, most of what has been so far suggested will likely not make large positive changes on the ground. Canada tried unsuccessfully to pass the weak Respecting Corporate Accountability for the Activities of Mining, Oil or Gas in Developing Countries Act, which as a private members bill would have been unlikely to receive the proper financial resources it needed to be adequately functional. It also only targeted companies who were supported by Export Development Canada or the Canada Pension Plan, excluding many of the companies alleged to have committed abuses in the DR Congo. This type of action would also not bring any real form of justice for the crimes committed, but rather is more like a “slap on the wrist” that could give the companies a chance to continue crimes in the future as they only lose specific government funding.
Several American groups have recently come up with the Conflict Mineral Trade Act of 2009 and the Congo Conflict Minerals Act of 2009 that would push American companies to report on any minerals used in the manufacture of their products coming from specific conflict areas and to describe the steps they took to ensure the minerals did not support arms groups. The latter essentially amounts to a boycott and the criminalization of mineral extraction in the DRC. This type of legislation is problematic as it may push the problem even deeper underground making it harder to regulate or result in severe economic disparity for the majority of the intended populations who rely on legitimate mining in the region to survive.
Others still are pushing for the resuscitation of pillaging laws, still on the books in many countries and in the international justice system to help deter companies from obtaining conflict resources (see James G. Stewart’s report published by the Open Society Foundations entitled “Corporate War Crimes: Prosecuting the Pillage of Natural Resources”). Pillage, the theft of resources during conflict, is considered a war crime in all modern international criminal courts and a large number of domestic criminal systems. If companies fear being charged with war crimes, they will likely take more adequate steps to ensure the source of their materials, though there is fear this could end up amounting to a boycott of certain regions as well.
While eliminating this problem is not something that can be solved overnight, we as consumers, should be aware of the effect we might be having on distant conflicts and do the most we can to educate ourselves about it. People are commonly outraged to learn when sweat-shop labour is being used, but are often unaware of the negative effects that exist during the entire process of manufacture, from the extraction of raw materials to the point when they reach the shelves in our stores and even the way we dispose of them after we no longer find them useful. If we don’t work to change the way we consume, our products will only help to fuel environmental degradation, conflict, war and even genocide for many years to come.
For those who would like to learn more, Rebecca Sargent posts stories and reports about conflict resources on Twitter @miningconflict.