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Human Trafficking Center

From Congo to Cell Store: Transparency is Key in Combating Human Trafficking


Mar 2017



By Catie Fowler, Projects Manager and Elise Mann, Research Assistant

On February 23rd, President Donald Trump vowed to bring the “full force and weight” of the US government against the “epidemic” that is human trafficking.   However, a recently proposed Executive Order would have a significant negative impact on trafficking–specifically on forced labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).  This legislation would be aimed at directly dismantling regulations put in place by Section 1502 of the 2010 US Dodd-Frank Act, which affects tech companies that extract conflict minerals from the eastern part of the country. Such action would likely allow for an increase in labor rights abuse. Instead, Trump’s  priority should be to increase the transparency of global supply chains to combat human trafficking and labor exploitation

Conflict Minerals in the DRC – Why Isn’t There a Blockbuster Movie About This?

The DRC is a prime example of the “resource curse.”  The vast country possesses an immense diversity and quantity of minerals, including coltan, cobalt, copper, gold, diamonds, and many more.  Despite the potential to use this wealth of resources as an economic engine, rebel militias and foreign armies have instead smuggled millions of dollars into the international market – over $400 million in diamonds and gold.

Ongoing conflict has displaced over 1.8 million people within DRC.  Internally displaced persons in Katanga, North Kivu, and South Kivu provinces are vulnerable to abduction, forced conscription and sexual violence by rebel armed forces and the government.  Some estimates claim over 5 million people have died from conflict-related reasons, making the DRC the front-runner for the highest number of conflict-related civilian deaths since the Jewish Holocaust.  These numbers are tragically dated, meaning it is likely that they have continued to climb without proper monitoring since 2010.  While films such as Blood Diamond continue to remind us of the atrocities committed in the name of conflict minerals in Sierra Leone, the DRC is becoming one of Africa’s forgotten conflicts.

Existing Legislation

The current Dodd-Frank Act is not intended to act as a regulatory agent for human trafficking.  The primary function of the bill is to place regulation of the financial industry in the hands of the US government. One small section, Section 1502, addresses the regulation of “conflict minerals,” defined as tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, which are understood as fueling armed conflict.

In effect, Section 1502 does very little to limit corporations. It requires that companies voluntarily disclose whether there is a risk that  their products include conflict-minerals extracted from eastern DRC.  The bill stops at disclosure and lacks enforcement or incentives for companies to divest themselves from conflict or even be transparent about the ways in which they are fueling it.  It also fails to include cobalt, another mineral commonly extracted from the region under dangerous and exploitative conditions.

How Does Regulation Impact Human Trafficking?

The law’s most immediate impact is on forced labor.  Often controlled by rebel groups, mines producing conflict minerals and cobalt utilize the forced labor of both children and adults to extract the resources.  Children are particularly at risk because of their size and ability to crawl deeper into mine shafts, putting them at greater risk of personal injury.  According to the US Trafficking in Persons Report, rebel groups are also known to engage in the forced conscription of child soldiers, forced labor of child porters, and the use of women and girls as sex slaves or rebel “wives.”  Since these armed groups draw much of their funding from mining profits, the mining of these minerals support these forms of slavery as well.  Lastly, commercial sex work and child sexual slavery increase in the areas surrounding the mines.  While not all sex work is sex trafficking, the presence of brothels in unregulated conditions leads to a greater vulnerability to sex trafficking itself.

Increased regulation would serve to mitigate all of the aforementioned forms of abuse. The Dodd-Frank Act has experienced relative success in doing so in the time that it has been in effect, and according to the Enough! Project, the act has seen the following victories:

  • 166 of 193 mines assessed have passed inspection.
  • Record amounts of conflict-free tantalum were exported in 2013, 2014, and 2015.
  • 70% of the tin, tantalum, and tungsten mines assessed in by the International Peace Information Service in 2014 were conflict free.

As the supply chain for these minerals is complicated, it can be difficult to track them to their origin and ensure that they are conflict free. For example, the supply chain for cobalt is a confusing web with  at least six to eight steps in the chain. A recent Washington Post investigative article found that many of the most prominent technology companies were unable to explain their supply chain for cobalt. Unfortunately, without legal requirements there is no incentive for the technology industries to check their own supply chains.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Dodd-Frank is far from perfect. In an opinion piece written for, Tim Worstall stood by his previous claims that Section 1502 was “the worst law of the year.”  His critique was that the law was ineffective and costly.  However, data released by the Enough! Project and other organizations invested in reducing conflict in the DRC indicate otherwise. In addition, whereas Worstall based his opinion off of the Security and Exchange Commission’s early estimate that the law would cost $4 billion in the first year alone, other sources have stated the actual costs incurred are less definitive.  A piece from Bloomberg Law further argued that, now that banks have already incurred these costs (whatever they actually are) they may prefer to keep the law in place because the costly implementation part is already done. The rumored EO would suspend the applicable parts of the Dodd-Frank Act for the next two years, meaning the money and momentum invested in early implementation would be erased. Though somewhat lacking, transparency is an important first step.  Understanding the supply chain allows for a better comprehension of the elements of trafficking that occur from mine to cell phone consumer.

A more effective law would go beyond the requirements for transparency laid out in Section 1502.  First, it would include cobalt, ensuring it covered a broader spectrum of conflict minerals sourced in eastern DRC.  Second, an improved law would have consequences for failure to comply.  It would require companies already sourcing in the DRC to invest in infrastructure, anti-corruption efforts, and development as well as the fair treatment of their laborers. No amount of expense can compare to the value of human rights.  Furthermore, in a world with an increasing trend towards conscious consumerism and greater supply chain transparency, there is also much for companies to gain by engaging in ethical practice.

We call on President Trump to maintain the requirement within US regulation protecting conflict minerals, and encourage him to go a step further: include cobalt as a protected conflict mineral. In 2017, it is simply unacceptable that technological advances being made by multi-national tech conglomerates are dependent on dangerous labor conditions in a marginalized part of the world.

Photo by ENOUGH Project via Flickr

*The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC


About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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4 Responses to “From Congo to Cell Store: Transparency is Key in Combating Human Trafficking”

  1. Marcos Silva

    If we put tighter restrictions and laws of the supply chain of minerals used for cell phones, will this solve the slavery and forced labor of children, or will it just push these rebel groups deeper into hiding? Why not eradicate the rebel control?

    • Catie Fowler

      Thank you Marcos. You bring up an excellent point. There is certainly no one silver bullet to ending trafficking, particularly in an environment as complex as the DRC. Better regulation of eastern DRC’s natural resources will certainly not solve all of the area’s complex problems on its own, but it is a good start. Better regulation means that laborers and communities will receive more of the income generated by mines, ultimately leading to better infrastructure and development. We have already seen that regulation has led to an overall decrease in illicit mining that has been known to fund the rebel groups responsible for abducting and forcibly recruiting children. By continuing to combat the use of coltan and other conflict minerals for rebel funding, this model promises to open the door to more legitimate forms of earning and provide positive encouragement for rebel groups to put down their arms. Of course, a multi-tiered approach that also involves conflict resolution and incentives for disarmament is critical as well.

  2. Matt

    I came across your blog tonight and am grateful to find others with a passion to address this awful issue. Thank you for your work. We see business solutions to address the issue of human trafficking and want to promote businesses that are fighting human trafficking.

    • Catie Fowler

      Thank you Matt! It is always encouraging to see there are other organizations tackling the labor side of human trafficking and acknowledging the critical role that business plays in doing so.

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