“I come from one of the richest countries on the planet. Yet the people of my country are among the poorest of the world. The troubling reality is that the abundance of our natural resources – gold, coltan, cobalt and other strategic minerals – is the root cause of war, extreme violence and abject poverty.”
These are the words of Denis Mukwege as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10th, Human Rights Day. He spoke of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where he has worked as a gynaecologist helping victims of sexual violence. The DRC is one of the countries where terms such as ‘conflict minerals’ and ‘resource curse’ became infamous in the 1990s. Armed groups that seized control of mines in the DRC often exploited communities, fuelled human rights violations, and used the profits to finance their activities.
Mukwege’s words underline an uncomfortable notion – that our everyday items such as vacuum cleaners and smartphones contain minerals that may have been mined in conditions violating human rights. With this in mind, QCEA created the space for Europe Union institutions, civil society, and industry to explore how the management of natural resources can contribute to peacebuilding. On November 15th at Quaker House, QCEA and the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy organised the third of a series of policy discussions called Cobalt and Conflict Minerals: Europe’s role to promote peacebuilding in the DRC.
Cobalt was named by Mukwege as one of the minerals fuelling violence in the DRC – however, it is not one of the conflict minerals listed by the EU’s recent Conflict Minerals Regulation: tin, tungsten, tantalum and gold, or 3TG. Yet growing demand for ‘green technology’ such as electric cars has increased the value and production of cobalt in recent years as it is a key component in lithium iron batteries. Questions about the ethical sourcing of cobalt have been raised by businesses and civil society organisations alike, with some calling it the ‘blood diamond of batteries’. Cobalt is mostly mined in the relatively peaceful south-eastern DRC; however, a report by Amnesty International shows that mining industries are failing to tackle child labour.
As the demand for cobalt rises, natural resource management that contributes to peace is paramount. Natural resources are not inherently linked to violent conflict. They are a source of livelihood for many people around the world. Natural resource management can be a tool for peacebuilding if planning and implementation are inclusive and conflict sensitive, as shown in QCEA’s Building Peace Together. Another important concept highlighted in Building Peace Together is Due Diligence, or the steps taken to ensure initiatives ‘do no harm’. The EU regulation that aims to regulate the trade of ‘conflict minerals’ will become binding for member states in 2021, requiring importers to use the five-step Due Diligence process of the OECD.
Inclusive, multi-stakeholder partnerships can help ensure that such legislation is implemented. An example of such a partnership is the European Partnership for Responsible Minerals (EPRM) which seeks to create better working conditions for mining communities. Its members include industry, civil society, and government. The efforts of such partnerships can help companies align to regulations.
With many people buying gifts in the Christmas season, what can consumers do? Globally, there is more awareness about the peace and human rights issues surrounding the sourcing of minerals. The demand for ethical and sustainable goods has increased, and is reflected in Goal 12 of the United Nation’s Agenda 2030: Sustainable Consumption and Production. Consumers can refer to a number of resources on responsible sourcing, such as Ethical Consumer and the Good Shopping Guide. Paying attention to what you buy and how it is sourced can help keep the pressure on company compliance to legislation that promotes the peaceful management of natural resources.