Jesuits urge EU to show commitment over conflict minerals

Patrice has worked as a child miner in the DRC since he was eight: Jesuit Missions
Patrice has worked as a child miner in the DRC since he was eight: Jesuit Missions

The Jesuit Refugee Service and the Jesuit European Social Centre have welcomed a move announced this week by the European Union (EU) to clean up Europe’s trade in minerals; but they have also criticised negotiations for a new law on so-called 'conflict minerals' as “half-hearted”, with too many concessions and loopholes. The proposed Regulation is meant to ensure that minerals entering the EU do not finance conflict or human rights violations, requiring certain EU companies to take responsibility for their mineral supply chains, with a view to preventing their trade being linked to conflict or human rights abuses.

However, in a statement issued by civil society organisations, including Amnesty International and Global Witness, as well as the Jesuits, they say that a string of concessions and last-minute loopholes could undermine the Regulation's impact, as they exempt many companies from the law. As EU legislators concluded their negotiations on a new law on so-called 'conflict minerals', the organisations called on the EU and its Member States to show that they are serious about making sure these exemptions do not undermine the Regulation's stated aims.

"This Regulation is a welcome step forward," said Michael Gibb of Global Witness. "But while the EU has sent a strong signal to a small group of companies, it has ultimately trusted that many more will continue to regulate themselves. It is now up to these companies to show that this trust is well-placed and well-earned; and we expect our lawmakers to act if it is not."

Human rights violationsPrecious metals bring misery and death to poor communities around the world

The EU is a major destination for minerals, both as a market for raw materials and the everyday products that contain them, from laptops and mobile phones to engines and jewellery. The new Regulation will cover EU imports of minerals tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold from all countries in the world, and is the first mandatory law of this kind to be truly global in its scope. But while global standards on the minerals trade require all companies to check their supply chains for conflict financing or human rights violations, the EU's mandatory provisions will cover only a small part of the supply chain.

In defiance of the European Parliament's more ambitious proposal in May 2015, only companies that import minerals in their raw forms—as ores and metals—will be covered. Companies that bring the very same minerals into the EU inside components or finished products are let off the hook. Late in negotiations EU Member States also successfully pushed for the inclusion of a series of import thresholds that will further reduce the number of companies required to comply.

Jesuit Missions (JM) has been working on this issue as part of the Global Ignatian Advocacy Network, which was set up by the Jesuits to support and advocate on behalf of local communities affected by mining activities. It also lobbies on human rights issues with a view to reducing the harm inflicted on land and communities around the world through mining activity. When, in March 2014, the European Commission put forward a draft regulation to address the trade in conflict minerals, JM lobbied key UK MEPs and the UK government, urging them not to water down the regulation when they discussed it with the Commission. In May 2015, MEPs rejected the Commission’s proposals and voted resoundingly in favour of mandatory compliance. Jesuit Missions described it as “a small but significant victory in the struggle to ensure poor countries and their populations are not exploited because of the vast natural wealth which they possess”, adding that, if it had passed, “it would have had no meaningful impact,” since it would have covered just four minerals: tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. It was entirely voluntary and it would cover only a tiny proportion of EU companies involved in the trade.

Minerals fuel conflict and corruption

George Gelber represents JM on the issue of conflict minerals. “Many of the most valuable and precious metals are found in poor countries, particularly in Africa, where instead of bringing prosperity and development, they have brought misery and death,” he says.  “Economists talk about ‘resource curse’ to describe the impact of mineral wealth on countries where, far from a blessing, it fuels conflict and corruption.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one example of a country that has been fought over by warring factions for years. “The armed groups do not mine the minerals themselves but force local miners to hand them over for a fraction of the price that they fetch in the international market,” George explains.  “Once sold on through traders and intermediaries, refined and ready for use, they end up in factories in Asia which produce must-have smart phones.  Our mobile phones alone contain tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold.  And while we are used to questioning where our foods come from and whether they are responsibly sourced, few people stop to think about where these metals come from.”

This week, JRS and the JESC warned that concessions and last-minute loopholes could undermine the Regulation's impact, “as they exempt a large number of companies from the law. Civil society organisations, including Amnesty International and Global Witness [and the Jesuit agencies], are today calling on the EU and its Member States to show that they are serious about making sure these exemptions do not undermine the Regulation's stated aims."

The full statement – signed by the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Jesuit European Social Centre – is available on the JRS website.