Shiny things with a dark history

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Could the things in your phone be fuelling conflicts?

The inextricable link between protection of the natural environment and promoting human dignity is definitely something the forthcoming ecology encyclical will focus on. And nowhere is this link more apparent than in questions relating to how we source minerals for our computers, phones, jewelry and other products.

The tragic truth is that the “laundering” of raw materials from places like Columbia, DRC and Central African Republic into “respectable” western markets is helping fund armed groups that visit unimaginable suffering on helpless civilians. This is nothing new. It’s certainly a topic close to my own heart through my involvement in the London Mining Network, a coalition of NGOs seeking to highlight the role of the City of London in financing ethically dubious projects.

The phenomenon of “dirty gold”, “blood diamonds” and “conflict minerals” has been on the public radar for many years. You only have to think of the impact of the film Blood Diamond, released a decade ago.

What is new however is the recent concerted action by Catholic organisations and bishops on the issue.

The impetus has been a drive to improve the European Union’s regulation of supply chains which potentially subsidise wars. In 2010, the US passed legislation requiring companies to ensure minerals are not sourced from conflict zones. Yet in Europe no equivalent law exists and so it is blithely heading towards becoming a trading hub for conflict minerals. The European Commission has noted this and the European Parliament Committee on International Committee on International Trade (INTA) has proposed new rules requiring companies to report on measures to ensure responsible sourcing of minerals.

But as currently drafted, the measures are unsatisfactory.

imageLed by CIDSE, an umbrella group of Catholic development NGOs, there have been calls for the EU proposals to go further. In short, the INTA’s recommendations need sharper teeth (unlike in the US, the reporting requirements would be voluntary, not mandatory), catch more companies (not just importers of raw materials, but also importers of products which contain minerals processed outside the EU) and have a wider application (not just apply to tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold as currently envisaged, but be extended to include copper and diamonds).

In a forthright letter coordinated by CIDSE last month, signed by nearly 200 Catholic bishops from around the globe, there is an appeal for the EU to enact legally binding requirements on companies. As the bishops put it, “As many of us are first-hand witnesses to the powerful dynamics in regions affected by conflict, having engaged in dialogue with all involved, we can assure that nothing less will be able to change the behaviour of companies and other actors.”

It’s surely this first-hand witness of what’s happening on the ground that gives the Church credibility when advocating about these matters. Pope Francis has said that the Catholic Church can never simply be a giant NGO. Of course that’s because it is concerned with peoples’ souls as well as their material welfare. But it’s also because unlike most NGOs, when the Church speaks and acts, it does so as a family, not just an organisation. We have a direct and personal link (and responsibility) to what is happening to our brothers and sisters elsewhere.

imageMgr Fridolin Ambongo, President of the Episcopal Commission on Natural Resources and a DRC Bishop picks up on this theme in a recent interview. He expressed his sense that there is a growing momentum in the Vatican behind the view that we cannot speak of evangelization without speaking of justice for people. From his position as a bishop from Democratic Republic of Congo, he is able to observe with complete clarity that “When we speak about blood minerals, it’s not just a theory. It’s the reality”. As he says “through their supply chains, some European companies are complicit in abuses …this situation is intolerable”.

The European Parliament will debate the proposals for tighter regulation of supply chains next month. Time to lobby your local MEP …

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