The cobalt mining industry is a human rights failure - here's what needs to be done

cobalt batteries mining in DRC

Mining by hand in the DRC Image: REUTERS/David Lewis

Anna Pienaar
Executive Director, Global Battery Alliance, Responsible Business Alliance
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • The thirst for green batteries is fuelling exploition in countries like the DRC.
  • Exploitation is deeply rooted in the cobalt industry, but it is not inevitable.
  • Major corporations, UN agencies, NGOs and foreign government donors should collaborate with the DRC

The connection between the battery driven green economy and the exploitative conditions under which children and adults mine its essential commodity – cobalt – is well known.

The wealth of companies purchasing cobalt for use in everything from mobile phones to cars and the wretchedness of those who pick it from the ground with their bare hands, in some cases at the risk of death is a global public scandal.

Responsible technology companies are scrutinizing their cobalt supply chain and human rights organizations are publicly outing poor performers. But the world’s insatiable appetite for cobalt – the majority of which is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo – far outstrips the industry’s efforts.

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In an attempt to counter the issue, the Global Battery Alliance is set to announce its guiding principles for a sustainable value chain, including the agreement to “Immediately and urgently eliminate child and forced labour, strengthen communities and respect the human rights of those employed by the value chain.”

Can cobalt sources ever be clean?

The truth of the matter is that it won’t be possible to source a “clean” supply of cobalt from the DRC unless there is a functioning justice system in cobalt-rich provinces that regularly inspects workplaces, rescues children and adults from forced labour slavery as well as reliably prosecutes mine managers, owners and buyers who violate the law and abuse child and adult workers.

Major corporations, UN agencies, NGOs and foreign government donors should collaborate with the DRC to make it a reality.The OECD guidance on responsible mineral supply chains were created to help companies “respect human rights and avoid contributing to conflict through their mineral sourcing practices”.

Improving supply chains and addressing risks

They call for secure, transparent and verifiable supply chains and systems to identify and respond to risks. One of the biggest risks to human rights in the cobalt industry is local authorities’ very limited ability to enforce laws against debt bondage, child labour, and sexual assault.

In fact, a study by the Catholic NGO Good Shepherd International Foundation indicated that 80% of the women interviewed had been physically forced to have sexual relations during the previous 12 months. International Justice Mission’s investigation in the cobalt-mining center of the DRC, Kolwezi in Lualaba Province, confirmed reports that the justice sector largely fails to protect women and children from violence.

There are few prosecutions of rape and it’s not hard to see why: there is a major shortage of personnel in the police, prosecution service, and courts; police officers and prosecutors can’t even afford to buy fuel for investigations requiring travel.

Ethical mining: Cobalt is a strategic and critical metal used in many diverse industrial and military applications.
Cobalt usage by application Image:

New guiding principles announced

The Global Battery Alliance's new guiding principles are designed to help effect major change. But for this commitment to improve the lives of tens of thousands of children, men and women who mine cobalt in the DRC, investments must include resourcing local justice officials to provide protection from exploitation and abuse. Independent human rights monitoring within and between the various cobalt concessions by respected and experienced investigators is recommended.

The Global Battery Alliance can support vulnerable children and adults in the cobalt sector by helping the Congolese government to provide access to justice services for victims of abuse. The sector should strengthen non-governmental organizations, like the Good Shepherd Sisters, who are feeding, educating and sheltering hundreds of children in the sector.

Exploitation is deeply rooted in the cobalt industry, but it is not inevitable or immutable. The Global Battery Alliance must now agree on and fund collective actions that insist upon rule of law in the sector, and help local authorities achieve it on behalf of those whose labour undergirds green technology.

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Related topics:
BatteriesFuture of the EnvironmentDavos Agenda
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