What’s In Your Smartphone? Blood Electronics

Arming militias in a war-torn region of Africa? There’s an app for that.

What’s In Your Smartphone? Blood Electronics

They are heavily sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. | AP Photo

By now, just about everyone has heard of blood diamonds, but you may not know their close cousins: “conflict minerals.” They include metals such as gold, tantalum, tungsten and tin, used to fuel your smartphone’s vibration mode or help maintain your camera’s battery life. In fact, they exist in just about every computer or electronic gadget you own.

They are heavily sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where warlords control mines and smuggling routes, profiting to the tune of more than $185 million annually by terrorizing locals into extracting the metals for little or no pay. Human rights groups report that more than 5 million Congolese have been killed by the militias, which, in addition to mining, force children to serve as soldiers and sexual slaves. Once the ill-gotten metals are mixed in smelters, it is impossible to trace to their source.

“The direct connection between our consumer appetites and violence in eastern Congo is a result of this: your cell phone,” said John Prendergast, holding up his own smart device. Prendergast is co-founder of the Enough Project, a humanitarian organization that has studied the sources and use of conflict minerals.

However, as the United States, the European Union and other governments take aim at conflict minerals with new regulations, manufacturers are battling humanitarian groups over just how much responsibility the companies will bear for keeping the metals out of their products. The business groups are pushing for wiggle room from coming regulations that might work to force changes in the supply chain.

Starting May 31, publicly traded companies will be required under a new Securities and Exchange Commission rule to disclose whether the metals in their products are “conflict free.” The new requirements stem from the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law and their enforcement powers from the 1934 law that created the SEC. Failure to comply could expose companies to lawsuits from shareholders if negative publicity over the use of the minerals causes consumers to boycott products and stock values to plummet.

By ERIC BRADNER | 10/24/13 6:01 AM EDT

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