Connected to conflict: the EU must take action on the ‘conflict minerals’ trade

Our attraction to gadgetry and up-to-date technology can often lead us to overlook the ethical issues concerning the mineral components contained in electronic devices. Many are unaware that the mining of certain minerals (including tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold) has been linked with horrific human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and other conflict zones. The trade in these minerals, essential for the components of electronic goods, is often used to finance violent conflict by paying for armed groups and security forces. In some poor, but resource-rich countries, workers, hired at gunpoint suffer terrible conditions and their families are terrorised and under constant threat. These ‘conflict minerals’ are entering the supply chains of multinational companies and ending up in many of the electronic products that we buy, most notably laptops and mobile phones.

As the world’s largest trading bloc, and home to many leading global companies trading and manufacturing natural resources, the European Union has an enormous influence on global supply chains.  It also has a responsibility to bring in strong and effective legislation to enable businesses and consumers to check whether their purchases have funded conflict and human rights abuse.

Draft legislation has been brought forward by the European Commission setting out the key elements for a proposed voluntary certification system to encourage European businesses to carry out thorough supply chain checks to make sure they are not using or trading natural resources that are funding violence. Last month (April 2015) in the Parliament’s International Trade Committee, MEPs debated these plans and as the coordinator for the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) Group on the trade committee, I co-tabled proposals stressing the need for a fully mandatory – not a voluntary – scheme. We have had voluntary guidelines in place for five years and over 80% of companies have chosen not to publish any information on their supply chain due diligence.

It is hugely disappointing that when we had this chance to act, tough action was blocked by a coalition of right-wing parties. With the US and China already running mandatory reporting schemes, it is shameful that the EU looks likely to fall short on these proposals. Conservative and UKIP MEPs who contributed to opposing these plans for full mandatory trading rules should now have to explain why they bowed to corporate pressure and supported a weak and unenforceable system.

This was a progressive package that would have drastically improved human rights around the world. Manufacturers must be made to respect that our desire for new technology does not come without a conscience and that as consumers we have a right to be informed and given the opportunity to use our purchasing power to drive change, and no longer unwittingly contribute to further conflict and abuse.
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David Martin is the UK’s longest-serving MEP.  His areas of interest include development and aid for trade, global access to medicine, human rights, institutional reform and animal welfare. http://www.martinmep.com/

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