Europe follows US lead in tackling ‘conflict minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses.

Covered in dust, and working in dangerous conditions along hot, narrow tunnels, teams of miners carve at the face of a tin mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The rich resources of the DRC and other central African countries – elements like tungsten, tin, tantalum and gold – are sold to make the latest mobile phones and laptops. But the vast profits are often pocketed by warlords, said Lucy Graham of Amnesty International.

“In places like the east DRC, Central African Republic and Congo, armed militia groups mine these products and then sell them for arms and ammunition. Those minerals enter the global supply chain and then end up in the products we use every day. And at the moment European companies have no obligation to check where the minerals in their products have come from,” said Graham.

It seems that is about to change. European lawmakers burst into applause Wednesday after the chamber voted to force European companies to ensure the minerals they import – or products that contain such minerals – are not contributing to conflict or human rights abuses in other countries.

The law is modeled on the United States’ Dodd-Frank Act, under which U.S. companies must inform regulators if they use metals from D.R.C. or neighboring countries.

French lawmaker Marie Arena argued in favor of the European legislation.

She said that the Dodd-Frank Act achieved true change in the countries of origin. It took time but it did achieve an improvement.

Several European lawmakers voiced fears over the impact on local economies in Africa. Cecilia Malmstrom, EU Commissioner for International Trade, noted the risk of trade diversion.

“We do run a high risk of further disrupting global supply chains and driving them away from Africa altogether. We also risk creating trade diversion resulting in prejudice against individual countries or even the whole continent and that would to plummeting prices for minerals from certain origins,” said Malmstrom.

Amnesty International said European industries lobbied heavily against the move towards compulsory oversight of supply chains.

“I can’t overstate what a groundbreaking step this was. When the proposal originally came out last year, it was completely voluntary,” said Graham.

The proposal for a compulsory system now goes to individual EU member states for further scrutiny. Campaigners say Brussels has sent a powerful message to big business – that profits made on the latest technology should not have their origins in war.