WASHINGTON - The world's mass consumption of cell phones, laptops and other electronics fuels widespread sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), according to a new study released Wednesday by the non-profit Enough Project that echoes what many human rights activists and humanitarian workers have been saying for years.
The paper, "Can You Hear Congo Now? Cell Phones, Conflict Minerals, and the Worst Sexual Violence in the World," details how "conflict minerals" that are mined in the war-torn DRC are sold by rebel groups to purchase arms, and serve as a direct cause of widespread sexual violence in the war-torn country.
"The conflict in eastern DRC - the deadliest since World War II - is fuelled in significant part by a multi-million-dollar trade in minerals," the report states. "Armed groups generate an estimated 144 million dollars each year by trading four main minerals: the ores that produce the metals tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold."
Working with other non-governmental organisations, the Enough Project has spent the last year researching the supply chains that link these conflict minerals to many of the world's most demanded electronics, including cell phones, portable music players and computers.
DRC has suffered from violence brought on by the "resource curse" for well over a century. Over the past decade, various militias and military units that have dominated conflict-ridden areas of the country have vied for control of mineral-rich areas and their inhabitants in part by using sexual violence.
According to the study, 1,100 rape cases are reported each month, the world's highest rate of sexual violence against women and girls.
"Women from communities that are being displaced are sometimes so traumatized by the sexual violence that they will never return to their home areas," wrote John Prendergast, co-founder of Enough, in a recent editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle. "These crimes destroy families, decimate communities, and lethally spread HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases."
Years of unrest have plagued the region. Following the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, in which some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by government forces and government-backed militias, hundreds of thousands of Hutus associated with the regime fled across the border into the DRC, as the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) conquered the country.
While many have since returned to Rwanda, the continued presence of "genocidaires" in eastern Congo has been cited by Kigali as justification for repeated incursion by its forces over the past 12 years into the region.
Indeed, the new study was released as Oxfam reported Wednesday that some 250,000 people in the DRC have been displaced following an unprecedented joint operation by Rwanda and the DRC's own army against the remnants of the Hutu forces earlier this year.
While the operation was hailed as a success by the two countries, the withdrawal of Rwandan forces over the past several weeks has enabled the Hutu militias to return to the region where they have carried out a campaign of looting and terror against the local population. Oxfam said that Congolese soldiers have also engaged in the violence.
"There is widespread looting, burning of villages and an unacceptable peak of sexual violence," Marcel Stoessel, Oxfam's country director in DR Congo, told the BBC.
According to the Enough study, the three main armed groups responsible for the violence and who also control much of the mineral trade are the National Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP), the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) and renegade units of the Congolese army (FARDC).
These armed groups profit from the mineral trade by forcibly controlling the mines and exacting bribes, or taxes, from transporters, local and international buyers and border controls.
The conflict minerals - tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold - are moved from Congo to countries in East Asia where they are processed into valuable metals needed for the manufacture of a wide range of electronics products.
The biggest use of tin worldwide is in electronic products, as a solder on circuit boards. Congolese armed groups earn approximately 85 million dollars a year from trade in tin, according to the paper.
Trade in tantalum, which is used to store electricity in capacitors in iPods, digital cameras, and cell phones earns the armed groups an estimated 8 million dollars annually. Tungsten, used to make cell phones vibrate, earns approximately 2 million dollars a year; and gold, used in jewelry and as a component in electronics, provides from 44 million dollars to 88 million dollars a year.
Enough called for electronics companies to endorse a pledge - similar to that made by the diamond and jewelry industry seven years ago regarding so-called "blood diamonds" - that they will manufacture their products without conflict minerals and make their supply chains subject to a transparent audit to back up the pledge.
According to the report, companies such as Apple, Nokia, Hewlett Packard, and Nintendo should "change their procurement practices and demand that their suppliers provide proof of where their minerals are sourced from."
Enough also urged consumers around the world to use their purchasing power by demanding that companies examine their business practices and become accountable for the sources of minerals used in many of their products
"We're asking consumers to endorse the conflict minerals pledge and contact the 21 leading electronics companies through our Raise Hope for Congo website to build pressure on these companies to make their products conflict-free," said Prendergast.
The paper also asks that U.S. President Barack Obama and Congress take concrete steps to ensure the end of violence in the DRC by combating its causes.
"President Obama must make a clean break with past policy toward Congo, which has too often been designed to half-heartedly manage the symptoms of the crisis through humanitarian aid, erratic diplomacy, and peacekeeping assistance," according to Prendergast.
He called for Obama to name a high-level special envoy with a team that can work in co-ordination with others on the local, national, and regional sources of instability; provide all necessary support to the International Criminal Court as it attempts to investigate and prosecute war crimes in the DRC, and press for making rape as a weapon of war a primary focus of criminal investigations in the eastern part of the country.
Enough also urged Congress to introduce legislation "that requires companies to disclose where their minerals are sourced, and creates penalties for those who continue purchasing conflict minerals."