Towards a tech future free from human rights abuses

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

Apple this week unveils its latest technologies as EU legislation comes into force to protecting workers against human rights abuses. [Akhenaton Images/Shutterstock]

Minerals are vital for many cutting edge technologies but often they leave a legacy of conflict and slavery. Responsible sourcing and human rights must be placed at the heart of modern business ethics, write Nele Meyer and Lucy Graham.

Nele Meyer is senior executive officer for business and human rights at Amnesty’s EU Office, and Lucy Graham is a business and human rights researcher.

This week Apple will showcase its latest product developments at the annual Worldwide Developers Conference in Silicon Valley, providing a glimpse into the technology of the future. Though it’s out of the spotlight, there is another exciting development for the tech world this week, one which should be cause for celebration for anyone with a smartphone.

A new EU regulation on so-called “conflict minerals”, which comes into force today, will help make sure that some of the key materials in smartphones, laptops and other gadgets like those on display in Silicon Valley this week, are responsibly sourced when emanating from areas suffering from conflict and serious human rights abuses.

Your phone is most likely made up of nearly 50 different minerals and metals, including around 5% tin, 0.5% gold and 0.1% cobalt. All three are essential components of the phone. There is gold in the circuit board central to a phone’s operation; tin is used to bond the electronics in the phone; and cobalt goes into its rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.

But while these minerals help connect us to each other, they may also connect us to human rights abuses and conflict. Beneath the shiny covers of our phones lies a grim reality: the minerals that power them can be mined by children and adults who put their lives at risk to work in appallingly dangerous conditions. Violent armed groups are also profiting from our increasing dependence on technology, by illegally taxing or stealing from miners or forcing them to work at mines under their control.

The new EU legislation aims to change all that. It requires companies who import certain raw minerals and metals – tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold – to check their supply chains for conflict financing and human rights risks such as forced and child labour, and to put in place and make public measures to address these risks. Although it is limited to a small number of companies and materials, the legislation is a historic step forward.

The world’s biggest trading power has sent a clear message to companies in the minerals supply chain that responsible business is the future. The EU Conflict Minerals Regulation is the latest in a line of similar initiatives within the EU and its member countries to ensure that businesses act more responsibly and transparently.

In 2014, the EU adopted a directive that requires large EU-based companies to report on key human rights, social and environmental impacts and what steps they take to address these risks. The 2015 UK Modern Slavery Act requires certain companies doing business in the UK to report on what they have done to ensure that slavery and human trafficking are not taking place in any part of their business or supply chains.

And in early 2017, the lower house of the Dutch parliament adopted legislation requiring companies selling goods and services to Dutch consumers to determine whether child labour occurs in their supply chains and, if so, to develop a plan of action to address this.

The most far-reaching however, is the new French “duty of vigilance” law which was adopted in February 2017. The law requires large French companies to develop, make public and implement a plan to identify and prevent serious human rights abuses, as well as health and environmental impacts resulting from their own activities or their business relationships, including their supply chains.

These positive developments are encouraging, but now is not the time for complacency.

Although it is globally accepted that businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights wherever they operate, laws requiring businesses to respect human rights are far from being a matter of course, and are often implemented very slowly. In many cases they are limited to specific business sectors (like certain minerals) or specific human rights violations (like child labour).

But there are plenty of other sectors and supply chains which are propped up by human rights abuses. For example, Amnesty International has documented child labour in a cobalt supply chain from the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as serious labour violations on palm oil plantations in Indonesia.

The export by companies of technology and tools that facilitate illegal government surveillance of human rights defenders around the world is also a matter for serious concern.

In the case of cobalt, when Amnesty’s report was released in January 2016, not one of the companies in that supply chain – which included Apple, Samsung and Sony – was doing even basic checks to ensure that cobalt mined by child labourers had not been used in their products. Another company in the supply chain admitted that this was because they were not required to do so under any law.

Demands for further legislation therefore rightly continue. The European Parliament called recently for mandatory due diligence requirements in the garment sector. National parliaments in eight EU member states recently asked the European Commission to put forward a legislative proposal establishing obligations on companies similar to the French “duty of vigilance” model.

These initiatives should be just the beginning. As the Trump administration looks to row back from corporate regulation – including by undermining Obama-era law on conflict minerals – the EU must live up to its status as the world’s greatest trading power, and fulfil its commitment to human rights.

Responsible sourcing must be at the heart of how the EU does business, and this regulation is a welcome first step. The EU and member states must now ensure safeguards for those other sectors and human rights violations not yet covered. We can no longer accept a situation where our products come at the price of human suffering.

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