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Apple accused by Congo over conflict minerals in iPhones

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The Democratic Republic of Congo has accused Apple of using illegally exported minerals from the war-torn east of the country, challenging the iPhone maker’s assertions that it carefully verifies the origins of materials in its devices.

Lawyers for the DRC government have written to Apple chief executive Tim Cook with a series of questions in a letter dated April 22 and seen by the Financial Times. 

In the letter, France- and US-based lawyers for the DRC say that Apple’s iPhones, Mac computers and other accessories are “tainted by the blood of the Congolese people”.

An Apple spokesman on Thursday declined to comment on the letter. Apple’s most recent disclosures on the use of so-called conflict minerals say the company has “no reasonable basis for concluding” that any of its tin, tungsten and tantalum smelters or refiners “directly or indirectly financed” armed groups in the DRC or adjoining countries.

The lawyers representing the DRC say they met with President Félix Tshisekedi in Kinshasa in September and have been retained by the government to investigate the illegal exportation of so-called “3T” materials from Congolese territory.

Tin, tungsten and tantalum are critical in the manufacturing of smartphones and Apple’s sourcing of the minerals has long been under scrutiny. The iPhone maker has increasingly put claims of environmental and social responsibility at the heart of its marketing campaigns.

Various armed groups control strategic supply chains into Rwanda and Uganda, analysts and Congolese officials say. 

A Congolese mining belt running along the DRC’s borders with Uganda and Rwanda holds some of the world’s largest deposits of coltan, the ore from which tantalum is extracted. This mineral-rich region is currently beset by fierce fighting between government forces and the M23 rebel group. The UN, US and EU say M23 is backed by neighbouring Rwanda, claims that Kigali does not acknowledge. 

The M23 rebels control key trade routes for minerals between Lake Edward and Lake Kivu. Rwanda’s government has denied the country benefits from what Congo claims is the $1bn a year it loses from the smuggling of minerals. In the midst of some of the fiercest attacks by the M23, the EU in February agreed to source critical minerals from Rwanda. 

On Thursday, Washington DC-based law firm Amsterdam & Partners LLP — which is representing the DRC government along with Bourdon & Associés in Paris — released a report claiming that Rwanda has used the rebel groups to launder “vast quantities” of key minerals from the DRC’s territory.

They say the electronic components companies that supply several technology, telecoms and defence companies knowingly purchase laundered minerals from Rwanda.

In the letter to Cook, the DRC’s lawyers say Apple’s claims that it verifies the origins of these materials “do not appear to be based on concrete, verifiable evidence”, alleging the company relies on suppliers based in Rwanda.

A separate notice has been sent to Apple’s subsidiaries in France.

Over the past decade, Apple has been expanding its use of recycled materials in its devices to reduce its consumption of such metals and minerals. It says it is working towards a long-term goal of creating a “closed loop” supply chain, after pledging in 2014 it wanted to “one day stop mining the earth altogether”.

“Last year, more than 20 per cent of the materials we shipped in Apple products came from recycled sources,” Apple said in its latest “environmental progress report”, including more than 99 per cent of the tungsten in its products.

“In 2023, 100 per cent of the identified tin, tantalum, tungsten, gold (3TG), cobalt, and lithium smelters and refiners in Apple’s supply chain completed assessments to verify compliance with our standards,” Apple said.

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