Unwatchable: dial R for rape. How much does your handset really cost?

Unwatchable is a graphic new film highlighting sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo as a tactic in the control of minerals used for electronics manufacturing. It's part of a campaign asking UK consumers to demand manufacturers control their supply chains and that governments introduce legislation to control the trade.
Written by James Farrar, Contributor

Warning: this film contains sexual violence that some viewers and mobile manufacturers may find disturbing.

So goes the introduction to Unwatchable which is, well, unwatchable so do heed the advice & be prepared. Unwatchable is a new short film just released on the web aimed at raising awareness amongst UK consumers of the use of so called 'conflict minerals' sourced from war torn Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It particularly highlights the issue of rape as tactic of war in the DRC with estimates than more than 2 million women have been raped at a rate of about one victim per minute.

Mines in the eastern region of the DRC are an important source of metals such as cassiterite, tungstan, gold and wolframite. In recent years as the market for devices has exploded so too have the prices for these commodities. Over time militias have moved into mining territories and set up virtual slave camps to exploit the trade. The result has been a human rights and humanitarian catastrophe. See previous posts on this for background.

Blood Electronics: Naomi Campbell's lesson for Silicon Valley CEOs 2010

US Congress ready to act on human rights crisis in tech industry supply chains 2009

The Cassiterite Crisis: How the tech boom fuels human rights risk in Africa  2008

The film was made with backing from Hollywood heavyweights such as film maker Michael Bonvillian whose credits include Lost and Cloverfield. It is based on the story of a DRC woman, Makisa, who was raped in front of her family while her husband was murdered & mutilated. The film is cleverly set in rural England to force UK consumers to more directly relate to the violence perpetrated daily in the DRC out of sight of the international media. Some will debate whether shock tactics such as this are effective but I'll leave that debate to experts. Viewers of Unwatchable are encouraged to sign a petition to manufacturers asking them to guarantee that their supply chains are conflict free and the web provides real time analytics on the number of petitions generated for Apple, HP, Motorola, HTC and Nokia. The petition also calls for the EU and its member states to introduce legislation similar to the Dodd Frank Act which requires supply chain 'due diligence' when sourcing from the DRC or Great Lakes and adjacent regions.

The problem with more 'due diligence' rules in other jurisdictions is that even under Dodd Frank things have been very slow to progress. The regulations are now bogged down for the past year at the SEC who are responsible for issuing the implementation directive. Writing in The Hill blog recently Bennett Freeman of Calvert Investments and Simon Taylor of Global Witness (the NGO thought leader of record on this issue in my opinion) warned:   

Alas, some business lobby groups are currently pulling out the stops in a bid to delay or dilute the forthcoming regulations. These interventions are creating confusion and hindering the urgent action that is needed.

Indeed, there is confusion about protocol for due diligence. The OECD has already issued its guidelines on due diligence that has had earlier wide spread buy in so attempts to water down Dodd Franks regulations might be an attempt to drive a wedge and lower the hurdle. However, already there has been impact in the DRC with the government earlier ordering a shut down of all mining activity for six months and current production levels are way down with some saying that some manufacturers have placed an effective embargo by choosing not to source from the region at all. For the DRC mining industry, bad publicity has been bad for business but Global Witness reckons that the chill on the trade is only temporary:

The idea that the current hiatus represents a permanent shut-down of the minerals trade in eastern DRC is misplaced, however. Indeed, despite alarmist talk of an end to eastern Congo’s minerals sector, the past few months have seen major international companies unveiling plans to invest in and source from mines in areas of Congo covered by the law. For example, NYSE-listed Motorola Solutions Inc has recently invested in mines in the southern Province of Katanga and a TSXV-listed Canadian company has acquired a 70 percent interest in a South Kivu tin mine.

Due diligence is flawed in so much as no one is yet willing to guarantee that finished consumer good are conflict free and, as awareness rises, this is the one thing that consumers will really want clarity on. It doesn't help that there is a lack of action and determination on behalf of governments and the international community. Global Witness is right to suggest that the long run solution is to have private sector 'due diligence' matched by public sector certification programmes except that isn't going to happen anytime soon which leaves business singularly exposed. Besides the track record of governments properly implementing certification processes such as the Kimberly process for diamonds has not been good.

This should result in a control system built on a strong institutional framework. The need to build up institutions in a region where state capacity is weak also means that the certification regime will take much longer to institute than supply chain due diligence, however. Whereas companies can start implementing the UN and OECD guidance now, it could be some years before the IGGLR certification system is fully operational.

Strikingly absent from the debate has been a C level industry executive willing to take a stand on this issue, though granted the venues for doing so have been decidedly less glamorous than they have been for climate change. Few have exposed the issue to consumers at all and perhaps Telefonica's O2 is an interesting exception. O2 publish a composite eco rating at point of sale for the phones they sell. The methodology of this rating allows for a 7.5% contribution to the rating for best practice in 'susbstance impact' management including the prohibition of conflict minerals in manufacturing. The goal of the eco rating according to O2:

it expects that consumer's interest in this aspect of their mobile phones will in turn encourage manufacturers to take a leadership role in driving forward sustainability.

I give O2 and their partner in the Eco Rating initiative, Forum for the Future, a B for effort here and kudos for getting the big picture sustainability issue out in front for consumers. But is it really appropriate for consumers using the composite metric to trade off energy efficiency of a handset relative to the 'forced labour, killings & rape' referred to in the guidance as the factors associated with conflict minerals? But the to be fair, maybe this is just a reflection of the current common approach which is couched in the corporate speak of 'due diligence' and 'continuous improvement'. Perhaps its now time for more decisive action.

This is a complex issue and there is huge risk for industry and governements to languish in a moral quagmire caught somewhere between impotence and obfuscation. There is also infinite opportunity for principled corporate leadership on this issue from Silicon Valley. If the unwatchable is watched widely, consumers might just be about to significantly force the pace and threaten some serious brand damage.

Disclosure: I'm a former employee of Global Witness.

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