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JOHANNESBURG – The campaign began as an idealistic effort to halt a horrific epidemic of rape and murder in the heart of Africa. It burgeoned into a powerful consumer movement, culminating in a planned U.S. regulation that is terrifying some of the world’s biggest corporations.
And now, with companies such as Apple Inc. and Motorola desperately seeking an ethical stamp of approval for their latest tablets and smart phones, activists like Joanne Lebert of Ottawa are finding themselves in an unexpected position of influence. Their new certification scheme could help solve a political dilemma that is inflicting turmoil on thousands of African miners and Western corporations.
At the centre of this global battle are the “conflict minerals” – tin, gold, tantalum and tungsten – that have fuelled vicious wars and ruthless militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of Africa’s biggest and poorest countries. Their proceeds are financing the warlords and armies that are responsible for millions of deaths and sexual assaults over the past decade in one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts.
But the attempt to stanch this flow of illicit money is inadvertently triggering an economic nightmare in Africa and North America. Even before the U.S. regulation is formally introduced, the export of conflict minerals is rapidly drying up as the multinationals scramble to avoid any bad publicity. And the human-rights activists who spearheaded the campaign are being accused of destroying one of Congo’s few profitable industries, killing thousands of mining jobs.
In the United States, meanwhile, the proposed new regulation is provoking loud protests from multinational corporations in dozens of industries, from automobiles and electronics to processed food and fighter jets. At a hearing in Washington this week, their executives argued that it’s impossible for them to certify the ethical origin of thousands of supplies from around the world.
If the U.S. regulation goes ahead, it would create a huge business incentive by allowing compliant companies to label their products as “conflict-free” – a potentially lucrative market advantage. Without this label, many products could suffer a damaging consumer boycott. The labelling system would be modelled on a Canadian-initiated scheme, the Kimberley Process, which certifies that gems are not “blood diamonds” from war zones.
The campaign against conflict minerals has gained a huge following in recent years, supported by Hollywood celebrities, human-rights groups, campus organizations and feminist leaders. Headlines such as “rape and murder funded by cell phones” have put enormous pressure on U.S. companies to stop using Congo minerals. And it created a unique opportunity that the activists are determined to exploit.
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