Our information communication technologies are soaked in blood. We have blood on our hands every time we use smartphones, tablets, laptops, computers, digital cameras, game consoles, and other similar electronic devices. Indeed, the ICT that plays such a prominent role in our personal and professional lives simultaneously contributes to a bloody conflict. This horrific role results from both the inhumane mining and extraction of the minerals necessary for their construction, and the huge financial profits from their illicit trafficking and sales in the complex supply chains of major technology corporations.

ICT is therefore the product of, and contributor to, ongoing brutal conflict, helping to finance and support corrupted governmental militaries, armed militias, warlords, and terrorists in parts of Africa and South America, most notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

These minerals – specifically tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold – have achieved notoriety as conflict minerals. There is intense international corporate competition for these minerals, based upon and exacerbating the continuing collapse of the Democratic Republic of Congo and a grinding war that has already cost millions of lives. According to analyst Colin Kinniburgh, “The crowning irony of conflict minerals is that, in this country that supplies the materials to keep so many of us connected, less than two per cent of the population has access to the internet.”

But it is arguably tantalum, or coltan, that is the most compelling of these conflict minerals because of its centrality to the construction of ICT. In fact, similar to how some diamonds are considered to be blood diamonds because of their violent extraction and development, much of coltan has similar horrific origins, resulting in the phenomenon of blood coltan or conflict coltan serving as major ICT components.

Coltan, also known as columbite-tantalite, is a dull black metallic mineral containing niobium and tantalum. The latter is a heat-resistant material able to hold strong electrical charges, thus making coltan an excellent conductor of electricity. Its ability to hold and move electrical signals, combined with its conductive ability in extremely high temperatures, make it an ideal ICT resource. It is required and used in the tiny capacitors that comprise and run our electronic devices. It is therefore used by almost everybody in ICT and other consumer and industrial electronic devices.

Coltan is so central to ICT that many governments, corporations, economists, and security specialists consider it a strategic mineral. Further, as new technologies and devices emerge, demand for coltan will grow, especially since there is presently no viable alternative substitute.

Thus, the increasing ubiquity, sophistication, and profitability of the gadgets we purchase and use for life, work, communication, and entertainment, depend upon the violent regime of inhumane accumulation prevailing in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Although about a quarter of tantalum directly derives from the Democratic Republic of Congo, coltan itself is specific to the country. It is mainly found in the areas of the country worst affected by conflict, namely the forested areas in and around the provinces of North and South Kivu and the district of Ituri. Different factions and groups, including government troops and warlords, battle to control mines and smuggling routes and, in this violent process, target and use civilians in their conflict. Over 80 per cent of the population in these areas have been displaced at least once, most people live in squalid camps, and the majority have been victimised – through direct political and economic oppression, enslavement, beatings, murder, mutilation, and rape – by the ongoing conflict that has been, in large part, fuelled by coltan.

Coltan is mined and extracted by civilian men, women, and children, along with some actual miners, often forcibly at gunpoint or other coercive measures. The United Nations reports that child labour has significantly increased in coltan mines over the past decade. Across the country, in fact, children, some as young as six years old, make up an estimated 40 per cent of the mining workforce. These children, along with their adult counterparts, must dig coltan out of the ground with picks, shovels, and bare hands in hazardous conditions. In addition to this backbreaking work, many miners are exposed to mercury, uranium, and other heavy metals, breathe in toxic dust, and operate in murky water, usually without any protective equipment and gear or medical services.

We are all connected to and complicit in these atrocities. According to Michael Nest in Coltan (Polity, 2011), every time we purchase and use our electronic devices, we are fuelling this conflict. The blood coltan and other conflict minerals in our smartphones, tablets, digital cameras and game consoles link ordinary individuals like us, along with corporations, to unspeakable cruelty and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo and to contributing to the conflict.

The blood coltan and other conflict minerals in our smartphones, tablets, digital cameras and game consoles link ordinary individuals like us, along with corporations, to unspeakable cruelty and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo

There is presently no simple way to prevent blood coltan from entering the supply chain of legitimate minerals used by manufacturers. Once blood coltan and other conflict minerals are smuggled out of the country and shipped to smelters around the world for refinement, it becomes difficult to authoritatively trace their origins. Blood coltan and other conflict minerals consequently easily make their way into consumer products in Europe and around the world. Unlike blood diamonds, moreover, there are no accurate means in which to identify coltan and other minerals once they have entered and been processed in the supply chain. They do not have similar geo-fingerprints like blood diamonds.

There remains a serious lack of regulation, transparency, and security regarding coltan and these minerals essential to ICT. Eliminating the flow of blood coltan and these other conflict minerals must include committed action by governments, industries, and activists.

There are, however, various campaigns raising awareness of how our smartphones are linked to atrocities. The Enough Project, for instance, aims to draw attention to how coltan contributes to the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo and recommends steps to stop it.

First, corporations that use coltan and these other minerals should thoroughly trace, monitor, and audit their supply chains to ensure their processes and products are not connected to atrocities in the Democratic Republic of Congo or elsewhere. For instance, the Conflict-Free Smelter programme established by the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, a technology industry group whose members include Apple, IBM, and Cisco, aims to trace, audit, and certify, with independent third-party verification, that they have and use conflict-free minerals, processes, and products in their sources and supply chains, with a specific focus on their smelters.

Second, governments, industries, and activists need to collaborate to help establish and support a clean minerals trade, in the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere, in order to help end the forcible use of civilians and children and ensure that actual miners can work in decent conditions. These parties must also work together to help ensure that the profits made from coltan and these other minerals benefit the relevant communities instead of corrupt government forces, warlords, murderers, rapists, and terrorists. Third, consumers should be able to shop for conflict-free electronic devices, similar to how there are options to purchase fair trade coffee, conflict-free diamonds, and organic food.

Although raising awareness and attempts to implement conflict-free certification programmes and processes may be steps in the right direction, they are insufficient because of their prioritisation of corporate-driven reform schemes. This focus, in fact, exacerbates the deeper structural problems confronting the Democratic Republic of Congo. They benefit industry interests by permitting corporations to retain a strong exploitative foothold in what remains a conflict zone. They also provide a way for the state to continue deflecting responsibility for the protection and welfare of its people. Therefore, conflict-free, in this case, does not mean free of forced or child labour, economic exploitation, extreme health and safety hazards, poverty wages, murder, or rape. Conflict-free, with this focus, also does not mean free of corrupt or illegal privatisation deals and land grabs.

Corporate-driven reform schemes, in other words, do not address the fundamental systemic changes desperately needed in the Democratic Republic of Congo to truly end the conflict. According to the analyst Colin Kinniburgh, if we want ICT to be free of blood, then we must pressure governments and industries to commit to helping resolve this conflict. He argues that, first and foremost, this country needs peace. Forging peace is fortunately beginning to slowly happen not because of corporate advocacy regarding conflict-free minerals, but because of more robust UN peacekeeping and diplomatic pressure on surrounding countries and corporations. Second, this country deserves reparations. Reparations would rightly implicate political and military elites within the country and the surrounding countries, especially Rwanda and Uganda, and international corporations that have taken advantage of Congolese resources throughout the conflict.

Ultimately, however, only the Congolese people themselves can fully enact such a systematic transformation. ICT plays a role in this grassroots effort. There are community technological centres being established across the country in order to help provide access to information to the public and to help foster communication, awareness, and solidarity through online and offline social movements.

Nevertheless, we all must work together to end the trade of blood coltan and other conflict minerals. Together, we need to create an international movement, and an accompanying global consumer demand, for conflict-free smartphones, tablets, digital cameras, game consoles, and other electronic devices. We must insist that, although a step in the right direction, corporate-driven certification and reform schemes remain insufficient to preventing these atrocities. We additionally need political, economic, diplomatic, civic, human rights, environment, and public-driven approaches. We must pressure the United Nations, governments, and corporations, and each other, to commit to helping the Congolese people resolve this horrific conflict and establish a sustainable peace.

Let us build our emerging information and knowledge economy, not on brutality and violence, but on clean, fair, equitable, and humane practices, respect, and treatment. Anything less means that we would be simply washing the blood off of our hands instead of stanching the actual flow of blood by suturing and healing this gaping wound.

• Marc Kosciejew is head of department and lecturer in the Department of Library Information and Archive Sciences in the Faculty of Media and Knowledge Sciences, University of Malta.

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