Are we the problem?

When we talk about solutions to human rights breaches, we often think about what others can do.  How can government create stricter legislation?  What can NGOs do to become more effective in filling in the gaps?  How can businesses refrain from contributing to fuelling injustices?  Seldom do we consider what our role might be in fighting for human rights.  It is much easier to offload responsibility onto another entity, even though the true problem might lie with us.

Free2Work Last month, our fellowship program focused on studying curriculum based on Not For Sale’s Free2Work platform.  One central component involved a lengthy discussion about conflict minerals.  Much of the electronic devices we use on a regular basis contain tin, tantalum, and tungsten, which are frequently sourced from the killing fields of eastern Congo.    Armed government troops and militias are fighting for control of mines in order to trade these raw materials.  They earn hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, which is used to wage unjust war where civilians are murdered and raped as a method of fracturing communities.

For years, grassroots and non-profit organizations have been increasing pressure on electronics companies to refrain from using conflict minerals in their products.  Lobbying for increased transparency and more ethical practices in their supply chains is, of course, a vital step towards justice.  However, the amelioration of such complex issues as forced and child labour or government-sponsored warfare requires something deeper than external activist efforts.  It requires a shift in mentality.

Assuming an entitlement to electronic devices has become embedded in Western culture.  We have structured our society in a way that our workplaces and personal life revolve around technology almost entirely.  We ‘need’ to own a car to get to work (and thus, we also ‘need’ a GPS to efficiently navigate our way).  Laptops are required for most every work-related activity in an office.  Cell phones are no longer simply popular, but are practically mandatory—and not just with adults anymore, either.  In the U.S., about half of children between ages 12 and 14 are using mobile phones and sending a stunning average of 2,779 text messages per month.  We don’t just want to own electronic devices—we expect it.

There is a direct connection between the products we purchase and the person who was exploited or enslaved in order to make that product.  Perhaps, then, many of the social injustices in our world—such as the war being fuelled in the Congo—are actually a result of our own greed.  Is being able to film a concert on your digital camera or being able to play Tetris or Angry Birds on your iPhone worth compromising somebody’s freedom?  How do we validate our ‘need’ to own cell phones and iPads when we know they are fuelling sexual violence and forced labour in the Congo?

We need to demand more of corporations—more attention to fair labour practices in their supply chains, more environmentally sustainable practices… But while we demand more of others, we should also consider demanding less for ourselves.

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