Wouldn't you just kill for that cell phone?

Components of many popular consumer items fuel deadly conflicts.

YOUR CELL PHONE PROBABLY DOESN'T LOOK TOO GUILTY ABOUT IT, but it could be responsible for some indiscriminate killing in the Congo. That's true also of your laptop, while your engagement ring could be helping to cellphonefuel mayhem in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Last but not least, your SUV is sucking up oil that contributes to conflict in a number of nations.

What these disparate examples of modern consumerism have in common is that they are all items that require the collection, transport, and marketing of what the Worldwatch Institute calls "conflict commodities."

In a remarkable document, The Anatomy of Resource Wars, Worldwatch details the small- and large-scale conflicts that have erupted in connection with some of the commodities that have become increasingly crucial to our high-tech Western lifestyles. Unruly governments, cash-hungry rebels, and your run-of-the-mill rapacious warlords around the world make as much as $12 billion a year, according to Worldwatch, by tapping into commodity flows into the First World. In the process they've brutalized untold numbers of helpless people.

What has been the cost of these conflict commodities? According to Worldwatch, more than 5 million people were killed during the 1990s and as many as 20 million were driven from their homes. Delicate ecosystems throughout the developing world have also shared in the devastation. Unregulated mining and logging operations in Sudan, Burma, the Congo, and many other small nations ravaged countrysides as quickly as they enriched a tiny and indifferent elite in regions unfortunate enough to be "rich" in a resource that suddenly became useful to the developed world.

Many people are by now aware of how "conflict diamonds" helped fuel the incomprehensibly brutal mayhem that enveloped Liberia and Sierra Leone, but did you know that your computer and cell phone could not be manufactured without coltan, a mineral found in Central Africa? Ten years ago coltan had little commercial value, but with more than 1 billion cell phones--and counting--in use today, the desperately poor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are taking up arms against each other to control coltan deposits.

It's just more evidence that if globalization has achieved anything, it has been to entangle all of us earthlings together in everyone else's problems. The connections between you and a brutal civil war in Africa may only be as far away as your nearest Target or Wal-Mart. There may not be a product in your home that is not somehow connected to some other person's struggle to survive.

The problem is, short of parking our SUVs and tossing our cell phones out the window (come to think of it . . . ), what can we do about conflict commodities when they are part of so many products most of us now consider necessities?

We can as a body politic support those economic sanctions and international controls that have helped reduce violence related to specific commodity flows already. The global effort to halt the market in conflict diamonds, for example, has had some success in reducing the bloodletting in West Africa. But more can be done. Western governments have to do a better job of policing commerce, cutting off commodity flows when a resource export market leads not to overall development in the impoverished regions of the world but only to violence and economic and environmental degradation.

And we can do a better job in monitoring a market that originates at our end of the world. While all eyes have been fixed on weapons of mass destruction, the sale of small arms from the West to conflict regions remains, as Pope John Paul II has said, a scandal. It's an amoral trade that enriches only a few in the West but which, according to UN studies, accounts for 95 percent of all the dying and suffering in global conflict.

The church has long said that the free market is perhaps the best engine of economic growth and improved living standards ever devised by humankind. It has also long noted that, left to its own devices, that free market has little regard for human dignity and authentic human development. Trade is good; unmoderated trade can be devastating. In the interests of common sense and compassion, sometimes we have to step in between conflict and commerce.

Kevin Clarke is the managing editor of online products at Claretian Publications in Chicago. This article appeared in the February 2003 (Volume 68, Number 2) issue of U.S. Catholic.

All active news articles