Dagens Tema med Bjørnar Østerhus Dahle: Cell Phones and Human Rights

The link between cell phones and human rights violations

On Monday 7th of September we were visited by from the Rafto Foundation who came to teach us about cell phones and human rights. Or more specifically, cell phones and human rights violations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Bjørnar explained that in the circuit cards of our cell phones there is an element called tantalum, which is refined from the mineral coltan. There is very little coltan in the world, but it exists in the eastern part of the DRC, and the coltan mined here is an important source of income for the militia groups that are part of the long-lasting and bloody conflict that has been going on since a painful independence struggle in 1965.

Following the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, this conflict has been called Africa’s first World War. The numbers are inaccurate, but it is believed that at least 5.4 million people in the DRC lost their lives between 1994 and 2006. The population of the DRC have suffered slavery, abuse, violence and starvation, and they have been robbed of their rights to education and a safe life. The conflict will go on as long as the militia groups are strong, and this was the issue Bjørnar came to discuss with us.

He explained that militia groups control many of the mines where coltan is extracted, and that this is such a major commercial business that the income the militia gets from exporting the mineral guarantees their continued existence. With this money, they can buy weapons, food, soldiers and influence.

So, if the production of our cell phones funds one of the world’s longest and bloodiest conflicts, who are responsible? Bjørnar illustrated the complexity of the situation by pointing to the very complicated chain of people involved: the miners who extract the coltan, the militia that owns the mines, the people who export the mineral out of the DRC, the companies that refine it into tantalum, the cell phone producers and lastly, us as consumers. Who should we hold responsible for the human rights violations? Is it even possible to point the finger at one group?

Part of the problem, Bjørnar explained, is that it is difficult to trace the coltan back to its country of origin. Between the links in the long chain mentioned above, people work hard to hide the fact that the coltan comes from mines connected to the conflict in the DRC because awareness of the problem is increasing. With that said, large cell phone producers such as Apple and Samsung do not exercise their influence to change the situation. The only company that we know are actively trying to trace the coltan used in their phones is the company Fairphone from the Netherlands.

As the end consumers, it may be up to us to raise awareness of the issue, and think twice about what our cell phone has cost other people. We are the ones in a position to raise the issue and put pressure on the industry as a whole.

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