Conflict minerals crackdown is a step towards ending this modern slavery

LIKE many people, I’ve often felt powerless in the face of powerful interests and highly complex systems that seem to be so intricate that we will never reform them for the better. But I’ve never changed my mind over the moral obligation we have to improve the lives of the world’s most desperate and vulnerable people. So last week’s news of the EU cracking down on conflict minerals is a much-needed boost in an otherwise frustrating year.

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First published in The National, 18 October 2016

Like conflict diamonds, conflict minerals are sourced through opaque or illegal practices in unstable areas of the world, in conditions of extreme exploitation, violence, and slavery. Campaigners have publicised disturbing cases of modern slavery, physical and sexual abuses on mine workers, dire working conditions and conflict over the control of such strategic mines. According to Bandi Mbubi of Congo Calling, rebel groups and rogue factions of the Congolese National Army have been profiting from these mines. It is claimed 75 per cent of the funding that sustains armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo comes from mining revenue. Meanwhile, the International Peace Information Service, reports that armed groups are present at more than half of all mining sites in the DRC. The local population is illegally coerced into working in the mines, and controlled by rape and violence.

Also known as ‘3TG’ (tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold), conflict minerals are found in everyday items, from mobile phones to hearing aids. While they weigh just a few grams in our pockets, their extraction is in the thousands of tons per annum. While the European Commission noted that it’s difficult for companies to trace the origin of minerals, that’s no excuse for turning a blind eye to modern-day slavery. That’s why the EU has collectively agreed to move from optional self-certification measures to mandatory compliance. From 2021, EU importers of 3TG and their ores will have to carry out checks on their suppliers to ensure that these conflict minerals are not flowing through Europe.

I’ve been campaigning for mandatory measures for years, including writing to CEOs of senior tech companies to ask what measures they have in place to ensure no conflict minerals have slipped through the net and into their products. The responses were heartening, and I’m confident these new measures will have the full support of businesses.

The measures are eminently measured and reasonable. Companies have four years to adjust, and will report to national authorities instead of a new EU body. All companies importing less than 100kg of gold ore per annum are exempted from tracking and reporting. Meanwhile, the EU will set up a list of safe refiners and smelters. There’s no additional red-tape, just basic reporting to ensure companies are not dealing with war criminals. Most importantly, we are not asking companies to track the supply chain downstream: only upstream, until the “choke points” where smelters and refiners are involved.

By working within the EU, Scotland is part of something that we couldn’t have achieved on our own. Thousands of constituents contacted me to ask that I represent them by taking a stand against conflict minerals, and this is a significant move in eradicating modern-day slavery. Both the European Parliament and the UK Government agreed to apply this new rule, so here’s hoping Brexit won’t wipe out our efforts.

Stopping the cashflow from the mines won’t end the violence in the DRC overnight. That’s why we must continue to listen to our friends in conflict-ridden areas, raise awareness in Europe, and take what measures we can. But in the meantime, working with our European neighbours to use calm words and strong legislation is crucial.