Conflict minerals: Will Europe be on the right side of history?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Tin is a commonly-used mineral that often comes from rebel-held mines. [Inage Journeys Sasha Lezhnev/Flickr]

The European Parliament must strengthen the EU’s position on conflict minerals to protect the world’s most vulnerable citizens, write Lucy Graham and Michael Gibb. 

Lucy Graham is a member of the Business & Human Rights Team for Amnesty International, and Michael Gibb is Conflict Resources campaign leader for Global Witness.

We are surrounded by some of the most prized resources on the planet. We may give it little thought, but all around us there are small amounts of rare minerals it would be difficult to imagine life without. They are inside the radios and alarms that wake us up in the morning. Inside the cars and trains that take us to work. They’re inside our computers, and quite possibly, the screen you are reading this on right now.

These tiny amounts may not sound like much, but they all add up. They add up to a global minerals trade that is worth over a hundred billion euros a year. Unfortunately, they also add up to something worth fighting over.

Many of the minerals essential to modern life are found in some of the poorest and most fragile parts of the world. If these valuable resources are extracted and traded with care, they can create jobs and drive much-needed development. Too often, however, irresponsible business practices let profits end up in the wrong hands, perpetuating a cycle of conflict and human rights abuses.

In the Central African Republic, the demand for gold and diamonds has funded armed groups driving a vicious conflict that has killed thousands, displaced a fifth of the population, and left one in two in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. In parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the trade in minerals like tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold has fuelled one of the deadliest conflicts since World War II. In Myanmar, the mining of minerals such as copper and jade has been linked to serious human rights abuses and illegal activities.

This Wednesday 20 May, the European Parliament has an historic opportunity to do something about this. Parliamentarians will be voting on the EU’s first ever conflict minerals regulation, which is designed to tackle this deadly trade.

But the draft law being put before the Parliament is weak and ineffective. That is why 157 civil society organisations and activists are calling on Parliamentarians to show leadership, and vote for a strong regulation that will make a real difference to the lives of those blighted by this trade.

In March 2014, the European Commission put forward a weak and toothless proposal to regulate the trade in conflict minerals. It gives a small number of European companies the option of sourcing responsibly, by doing what is known as “due diligence” on the supply chains they use to bring four key minerals — tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold (‘3TG’) — into Europe. Voluntary schemes such as this have existed for some time, but too few European companies are complying with them and taking steps to source more responsibly from areas affected by conflict and instability.

Some passionate voices in the European Parliament have pushed to strengthen the Commission’s proposal and managed to ensure that at least some European companies will be required to source their minerals with care.

Regrettably, the proposal now before the Parliament is still too weak to make a real difference, and still falls short of global standards and existing laws in countries like the US. Only a handful of companies that import 3TG as raw ores or metals into Europe — around 20 companies, according to the European Commission — would actually be required to do anything at all. This completely overlooks the vast quantities of the very same minerals that enter the EU in other forms, such as inside our radios, computers, cars, and mobile phones. For the companies selling us these products, taking steps to ensure they have not contributed to conflict or human rights abuses remains entirely voluntary.

That is why the 157 signatories to the open letter released today are calling on Europe’s Parliamentarians to strengthen the regulation by requiring companies that bring minerals into Europe as part of products to take similar care as those importing raw ores and metals. Only then can Europe claim it has laws fit to tackle the trade in conflict minerals.

Encouraging companies to behave responsibly by ensuring they carry out “due diligence” on their supply chains is not a new idea. Just last month, on the second anniversary of the tragic Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for binding rules that would require companies in the textile sector to do due diligence on the human rights impacts of their business activities. Regrettably, some of the political groups that supported this regulation have not been willing to back a similar response to the trade in conflict minerals.

Tackling the lucrative trade in conflict minerals will not, on its own, put an end to conflict, corruption or abuse. But as the world’s largest trading block, and as the home of 500 million consumers and some of the world’s most powerful investors, Europe has a responsibility to do its part in cleaning up this trade and ensuring that European companies do not benefit from and contribute to human rights abuses. Those bearing the cost of Europe’s failure to tackle this trade are some of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of the world. For them, inaction and irresponsible business comes at an unacceptable cost.

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