Over two years ago, the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee, of which I am a member, began the process of scrutinising new legislation to regulate the importation of certain minerals into the European Union.
Last month these new laws progressed to the full Parliament, and I and my Labour colleagues welcomed the vote to support mandatory rules to begin breaking the link between armed conflict and the mineral trade. This will be a great step forward in ensuring that consumers buying electronic products will not be unwittingly financing conflicts in some of the world’s poorest, most unstable countries.
It is easy to overlook the ethical issues concerning the mineral components contained in our attractive, fashionable and cleverly-marketed electronic devices. However the mining of certain minerals (including tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold) has been linked with horrific human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and other conflict zones. The trade in these minerals, essential for the components of electronic goods, is often used to finance violent conflict by paying for armed groups and security forces. In some poor, but resource-rich countries, workers, hired at gunpoint suffer terrible conditions and their families are terrorised and under constant threat. These ‘conflict minerals’ are entering the supply chains of multinational companies and ending up in many of the increasingly popular products that we buy, most notably laptops and mobile phones but also jewellery, packaging, lighting and some industrial machinery.
As the world’s largest trading bloc, and home to many leading global companies trading and manufacturing natural resources, the European Union has an enormous influence on global supply chains and an opportunity to bring in strong and effective legislation to enable businesses and consumers to check whether their purchases have funded conflict and human rights abuse.
Since 2002 the United Nations has been highlighting the link between the illegal exploitation of mineral resources and conflict, most particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Apart from the United States’ ‘Dodd-Frank Act’ of 2010 (which the Trump is preparing to suspend), all other existing measures to regulate mineral importation have been implemented on a purely voluntary basis. We pushed hard for a mandatory approach and a broader coverage of the whole supply chain. The proposed regulation establishes binding obligations for importers from conflict-affected or high-risk areas to enable audits, traceability and verification of the raw products used in their production processes. The European Commission will also draw up a list of responsible smelters and refiners that supply production in the EU as well as a guide to conflict and risk areas. This shows the EU to be at the forefront of global efforts to create more transparent, responsible and sustainable business practices.
My concern now, as we see Article 50 triggered, is that these positive and hard-fought regulations will not be maintained after Brexit. Labour MEPs fought long and hard to challenge what was a voluntary system of compliance. It would be truly unforgivable if the UK abandoned these new laws and regressed to trading unethically.