People in conflict zones don’t have a choice about living the midst of perpetual civil war, don’t choose to become child laborers and do not volunteer for enslavement in militia-controlled mines. But when it comes to the social responsibilities of companies that profit from the trade in conflict minerals, responding to such atrocities is mostly a matter of voluntarism.
The European Union’s new plan for restricting conflict minerals in global trade starts with good intentions, but basically ends there. The European Commission’s draft legislation, slated for implementation in 2015, aims to designate “responsible importers” that voluntarily keep their supply chains free of materials used to finance armed conflict, primarily sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and South Sudan. The plan covers four key minerals integral to electronic products like cellphones—tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold—through a “self-certification” scheme based on global ethical sourcing guidelines. But since it is not mandatory, and therefore only targets companies that voluntarily opt in, rights groups worry that the scheme would codify the trend of letting the fox guard the multinational henhouse.
And it’s a very small henhouse at that. The rules focus on European-based businesses dealing with raw materials, particularly smelters and refiners—and not companies that trade in imported, finished manufactured products that drive European consumer markets. Thus, as Euractiv reports, the program “will not apply to importers of products such as mobile phones, which may already have had the materials installed.” In other words, the dirty minerals can be present throughout the supply chain, but as long as the closest links are clean, corporate impunity will persist for the imported electronic gadgets bearing conflict-tainted metals in their circuitry.
In a statement issued earlier this month, a coalition of human rights groups warned that “the Commission’s proposal—an opt-in self-certification scheme available to a limited number of companies—is likely to have minimal impact on the way that the majority of European companies source natural resources.”
Advocates worry that under this weak certification system, European companies may simply start relying more on imports that enter European markets in a “cleaner” form. “Outsourcing might be a rampant way to deal with this proposal,” Michael Reckordt of the German NGO PowerShift eV (AK Rohstoffe) tells The Nation via e-mail. “Finished products made in Asia, Africa or Latin America are not part of the proposal,” and European consumers of these imports “will not know if [their purchase] supports child labour or human rights violations, or, in the worst case: is fueling a bloody conflict somewhere in the world.”