Numbers can be overwhelming by any standard. The death toll from the recent earthquake in Haiti has risen to 212,000 people. The U.S. government has announced an unprecedented budget of $3.8 trillion. A popular auto manufacturer has recalled 5.3 million vehicles for faulty accelerators that can jam while driving.
Many times these numbers mesh together into a statistical soup, generally lessening in impact as we recite them to others or as they are replaced with fresh information from an endless fount of media. Among the endless din, however, one number caught my attention, precisely because it was so close to another statistic I had heard.
5.4 million dead. That’s the closest estimate of the number of men, women and children killed in Congo since 1996. That’s about 100,000 more deaths than the number of cars recalled by Toyota. Imagine (heaven forbid) if all those Toyotas ended in tragic accidents and the people who drove them were killed. Among them would be people I love and care about deeply. We would be outraged. The public would cry out for justice, investigations and for the people responsible to be drawn into court to answer for their negligence.
This is, of course, assuming that death is worse than living with rape. Militias have realized that this weapon of war destroys indigenous communities faster and forces allegiance and control. As New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof noted in a recent column, there are things worse than dying and yet there are things still to live for.
Yes, I know that war-torn injustices hardly “move the meter” of mainstream news. Beyond an initial impact of general horror, the endless stream of information all too quickly looks for the next big story. A 2002 report by the International Council on Human Rights Policy notes an overall increase in the number of human rights stories reported, but a sharp crash in the amount of coverage a crisis receives in weeks, months and years after the initial conflict. Most viewers detach from the story because they feel helpless to do anything to alleviate the suffering. But what if there was something we could do?
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Cell phones and computers, Play Stations and digital cameras, GPS systems and hearing aids – all are made with a material called tantalum – often known simply as “coltan.” Admittedly, the Congo only produces about 1 percent of the world’s coltan, but when the price of coltan shot up in the year 2000 from $40 a pound to $380 a pound, a bloody war became bloodier.
Ten years later, there is still no global trade resolution to guarantee “conflict-free minerals.” Worse yet, there is no viable alternative to purchase conflict-free goods. No certification of conflict-free computers, cell phones or DVD players. To date, no electronics manufacturer has promised to trade only in conflict-free coltan.
A bipartisan bill has been introduced in the House to regulate the trade of “conflict materials,” in much the same way as diamonds were regulated from Sierra Leone and Angola in the ’90s. Additionally, the bill would call for the production of electronics that were certified as “conflict-free.” Whether this resolution will pass or effect real change, only time will tell.
There are already some who are challenging Toyota for not recalling their vehicles sooner, condemning officials as having blood on their hands. In the wake of the atrocities committed in Congo, may we hear the chorus of millions of victims saying, “There’s blood on your hands too; just check your phone.”