The Caithness Courier, April 2015
Most people would be horrified to discover that minerals that have been linked with terrible human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and other conflict zones can be found in many of the electronic products that they use every day. 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 electronic products that we buy, most notably laptops and mobile phones.
Last month (April), MEPs in the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee, of which I am a member, debated a progressive package that could have drastically improved human rights around the world.
We were debating plans for a proposed certification system designed to let consumers know that the mineral components contained in their devices (including tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold) have been sourced responsibly. The proposal however was a voluntary system. I and my fellow Labour MEPs were insisting that a voluntary scheme would not be enough and that a fully mandatory scheme was absolutely vital to stop the European Union being complicit in the devastation caused by the trade in conflict minerals. We have had voluntary guidelines in place for five years now and we have seen that over 80% of companies have chosen not to publish any information on their supply chain due diligence. With the US and China already running mandatory reporting schemes, I believe it is shameful that the EU was now only proposing a voluntary certification system. In the Foreign Affairs committee I had tabled over 100 amendments to strengthen the Commission proposal for a mandatory scheme.
Those who voted against a mandatory scheme, including conservatives and liberals, should now have to explain why they bowed to corporate pressure and supported a weak and unenforceable voluntary system. Labour MEPs have been campaigning for legislation on this issue for some time, so it was extremely disappointing that when we had a chance to act, tough action was blocked by a coalition of right wing parties.
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 a responsibility to bring in strong and effective legislation to enable businesses and consumers to check whether their purchases have funded conflict and human rights abuse. As consumers we have a right to be informed and not unwittingly contribute to further conflict and abuse.
I was deeply disappointed that we lost the vote however I and my Labour MEPs intend to re-table for tougher proposals before the new EU rules are put to all MEPs for approval in the full Strasbourg Plenary session in May.