Jun 3 2015

MEPs send clear signal on proposed EU conflict minerals law

Sonia Hierzig is a current MSc Human Rights student at LSE and a Research Intern with the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre. She completed her undergraduate degree in Politics and International Studies at the University of Exeter and also holds an MSc in Development Management from the Open University.

A worker at a wolframite mine in eastern DRC

A worker at a wolframite mine in eastern DRC (image: Flickr/julien_harneis)

On 20 May 2015, the European Parliament voted in favour of binding conflict minerals legislation requiring monitoring of supply chains. This is a significant strengthening of the proposal by the parliament’s International Trade Committee, which would only have applied to mineral importers, smelters and refiners. The new legislation could affect around 800,000 companies.

Richard Howitt MEP, European Parliament rapporteur on corporate social responsibility, who voted in favour of the amendment, said “this legislation on conflict minerals is a test of Europe’s claim to be a leader of responsible business…Voluntary self-certification is not enough.” He welcomed the European Parliament vote to strengthen a proposed EU conflict minerals law, to “clean blood off our mobile phones and gadgets”.

Minerals including gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten, mined in conflict areas such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Colombia and Zimbabwe, have long been linked with funding serious human rights violations, including killings, violence and rape. In the DRC, for instance, four miners and a pregnant woman were killed at a cassiterite mine two months ago, as armed men carried out an ambush and stole minerals and other items. Sadly, stories like this are not uncommon.

The European Parliament’s International Trade Committee had initially only adopted weak amendments to the legislative proposal put forward by the European Commission. The draft regulation was mostly based on a voluntary self-certification scheme topped up with a mandatory system of certification for EU mineral importers, smelters and refiners, requiring them to use responsibly sourced minerals and display an approved European importer on the label.

The initial draft legislation attracted sharp criticism from various civil society organisations, including CIDSE, Global Witness, and Amnesty International, including because it mandated supply chain reporting for too few companies. Whilst the Parliament has addressed this issue in its vote, two other main criticisms that had been put forward remain unaddressed. One issue is that the draft legislation does not include all relevant natural resources; copper, jade and iron ore, for instance, have also been linked to serious human rights abuses. Finally, the draft legislation only applies to European companies that fail to regulate their suppliers from outside of Europe.

Despite these insufficiencies, the European Parliament vote is a huge step forward. Lucy Graham, Legal Adviser to Amnesty International’s Business and Human Rights team, said that “[t]he European Parliament has sent a clear signal. European firms cannot turn a blind eye to the risk their operations contribute to human rights abuses abroad”. But divisions mean that the proposal will now be subject to a complex and tough negotiation process. Graham went on to say that “EU Member States however remain very much in favour of a voluntary scheme… so the Parliament’s mandatory proposal is likely to meet strong resistance. It’s therefore vital that consumers, civil society and other influential voices keep up the pressure… And it’s time for governments to start listening to those voices and prioritising people over business”.

So, the regulation clearly has a long road to travel, and, even then, it’s only the first step. The 2012 US Dodd-Frank Act‘s conflict minerals provision, which requires companies to undertake due diligence and report publicly on their use of minerals, has recently been shown to lack effectiveness, as it emerged that 80% of US company reports do not comply with conflict minerals law. It is crucial that appropriate enforcement mechanisms are put into place to ensure compliance with the EU law.

Over the coming months, as negotiations on the proposal continue, the European Parliament must take its mandate seriously and stand by this strong commitment. Civil society organisations will no doubt continue to play a crucial role in pushing for stronger legislation on conflict minerals.

This article was originally published on the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre Blog.

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