Blog: Human rights abuses & the global mining industry – governments start taking action

Image courtesy of Mark Craemer and Global Witness.

Most of us are completely unaware of where the raw materials to make our gadgets or fancy jewellery come from. Some may have heard of ‘blood diamonds’, particularly if you’ve seen the 2006 Leonardo Dicaprio film of the same name (anyone remember that dodgy accent?).  Blood diamonds for years funded bloody wars in Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Côte d’Ivoire, costing millions of lives. NGO’s and the international community, with much success, have worked hard to greatly reduce the trade of such diamonds

When I started writing about mining two-years ago I discovered blood diamonds were not the only human rights abuses to occur due to the large scale extraction of minerals. While the majority of mining operations around the globe can be considered, overall, positive – they create jobs, improve local economy, pay huge sums in taxes and provide us with the raw materials we need – some can be toxic.

In March 2013 I wrote a feature about the alleged abuses – including rape, murder, slave labour environmental devastation, corruption and war crimes – linked to some Canadian mining companies working in countries such as Eritrea, Peru and Democratic Republic of Congo. Canadian mining companies are not the only  culprits, British companies, such as Glencore, have also been accused of mis-management and corruption at one of their mines.

In regards to human rights abuses, in many instances it is not mining companies condoning or perpetrating these crimes but third party local contractors, such as security companies,  or government employees who are perhaps providing security to a mine as part of the mining company’s contract with the government. Either way this does not make it acceptable. If rule of law is weak  locally it’s up to Western governments to do something. If they don’t regulate what companies based in their country are doing while working with kelptocratic governments abroad, such as in Eritrea or the Democratic Republic of Congo, who will?

A wave of change 

It’s been a long-time coming, but a slew of new legislation has been, finally, implemented in the last few years. Surprisingly, up until recently most governments just offered ‘guidance’ and anti-corruption laws that rarely resulted in any meaningful conviction or fines.

In 2010 US introduced the Dodd Frank Act into US law. Most notable is the 1502 section which requires companies to determine whether their products contain conflict minerals by carrying out supply chain due diligence. In 2012 it added further legislation that requires companies to publish in full payments they make to governments.

In regards to the 1502 amendment, Lizzie Parsons from Global Witness says there has been anecdotal evidence from traders in Burundi that Chinese companies, who are major players in mining of developing countries, are asking for information around the sourcing of minerals in relation to the Dodd Frank Act. However, reporting this summer, the first significant reporting since the act was passed, has shown that a minority of companies have provided adequate supply chain due diligence, but the majority are lacking. It seems to me it will be a few years still before we can say whether Dodd Frank has been a success or not.

China has also recognised there is a problem

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As one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and home to companies investing and trading in conflict-affected countries, China has participated in several international initiatives to tackle conflict resources. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe.

China, which itself has a questionable human rights record, for the first time in history, has addressed its mining companies’ actions in developing companies. In November, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce for Minerals, Metals and Chemicals Importers and Exporters (CCCMC), launched a set of voluntary guidelines for Chinese mining and minerals trading companies working overseas.

Although the unprecedented guidelines are only voluntary, Parsons says they are “a sign that Chinese companies and the Chinese industry group recognise that business can be done better by Chinese companies.” I wrote more in depth on the guidelines here.

China’s is one of the major players in countries like Africa because it needs minerals to fuel its unparalleled economic growth. China has faced criticism for its actions in the continent, one example of such criticism is from Ghanaian national and President of the Free Africa Foundation, Dr. George B.N. Ayittey, who said: “Rather than fixing Africa’s lack of infrastructure, Chinese entrepreneurs and Africa’s ruling vampire elites conspire to rape and plunder the continent”. You can read more here.

Canada finally recognises there is a problem…

Canada has also, after a five year consultation, started to better address its companies’ actions abroad, but only marginally. Around one third of companies operating in the global mining industry are Canada based, so it’s not surprising that many of the mining companies embroiled in human rights abuses are Canadian. To address this the Canadian government, which has shown itself to be very pro-mining industry, this autumn revamped the powers of its corporate social responsibility counsellor who will now screen foreign community complaints about mining operations and companies that refuse to co-operate with the counsellor will lose government support , such as  financial support from several government funded agencies.

Though seen as a step in the right direction, critics say the new amendments  aren’t stringent enough. They still rely too heavily on expectation of good behaviour rather than legislative framework to ensure it. The revisions also do not address the need for independent investigations to substantiate the facts of complaints and report on those findings and come up with potential remedies.

What is the UK doing? 

The UK is also a major financer of the global mining industry but so far there has been little action to address human rights abuse allegations such as those alleged against Glencore. There was a break through this week, however, when a new law came into force on Monday that compels UK oil, gas, mining and logging companies to publish details of the payments they make to governments across the world for access to natural resources. This move will help make hundreds of billions of pounds worth of taxes, royalties and licence fees available to public scrutiny.

The EU member states and European Parliament are currently reviewing related draft legislation on mineral sourcing, which aims to ensure that minerals used or traded in Europe have been sourced responsibly and have not funded conflict or human rights abuses.

Moving forward

As you can see this is a massively complex issue and while positive change is happening there is still a long way to go. But what’s clear is that people shouldn’t be abused, lose their homes without compensation, at the very least, or be killed in order to feed the world’s insatiable appetite for minerals. If local opposition is so great against a mining project perhaps it just shouldn’t happen. Could you imagine a mining company rocking up in your back yard and starting a 40 year mining project without even consulting you? Not to mention you might die for imposing it.

Equally, people shouldn’t lose out on their national wealth – minerals – because of corrupt government and unscrupulous companies. If a company can’t source minerals responsibly from a project, without having to pay bribes to corrupt officials, it shouldn’t be sourcing them from there at all. Companies working in developing countries tend to work very closely and become very friendly with government officials but while they may have to do this to get their project off the ground they must do so responsibly. Also, the mining industry is extremely competitive and i’ve often heard the sentiment that if Western companies don’t mine in these regions, Chinese companies, which face a lot less scrutiny that Western companies, such as China, will simply do it. Bu there has to be a better way.

Mining in kleptocratic and undeveloped countries is a massively complex situation and it’s not to say it isn’t difficult for mining companies to address these issues. For one thing, understanding different cultures can be hugely challenging. However, there are a number of guidelines and programmes in place to help with this.

What I’ve covered here really is the tip of the iceberg of all the related issues.  I think it’s important to raise awareness of what goes on in the global mining industry as we all enjoy the fruits of mining’s labour – smart phones, TV, jewellery, that high rise building you work in…I could go on.  Let’s hope the international community, mining industry and governments can keep working towards a future where people are equal to profits and the profits generated are used to build better futures, not destroy them.