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Artisanal miners clear an opening to a shaft at a cobalt mine just outside the city Likasi in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (John Lehmann/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)
Artisanal miners clear an opening to a shaft at a cobalt mine just outside the city Likasi in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (John Lehmann/John Lehmann/Globe and Mail)

NDP to introduce federal bill on conflict minerals Add to ...

The NDP is about to reintroduce legislation designed to ensure Canadian companies are not using conflict minerals in their supply chain – and that consumers can be certain their smartphones and other electronics are free of minerals fuelling violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

On Tuesday, NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar will again table legislation that aims to have corporations and subsidiaries operating in Canada report annually to the government about their supply chains. This would inject transparency and due diligence into an industry where complicated global supply chains (that stretch into lawless conflict zones) and myriad smelters (often operating with little regulatory oversight) have allowed some multinationals to claim ignorance of ties to one of the world’s worst conflicts, in which an estimated five million have lost their lives.

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If Mr. Dewar succeeds in gaining momentum for the bill – after having a previous conflict minerals bill die on the order paper ahead of the 2011 federal election – the use of minerals such as “gold, cassiterite, wolframite and coltan and their derivatives, such as tin, tungsten and tantalum” from countries in the Great Lakes region of Africa could earn corporations the type of consumer scorn previously heaped on purveyors of “blood diamonds” and users of sweatshops.

Mr. Dewar compared the resource-fuelled violence by militias and other non-state actors in the vast central African country to brutality there during the Congo Free State under Belgian colonial administrators, and said he hoped to spur various industry, government and civil society actors to collaborate and implement guidelines painstakingly researched by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

“The only difference between what was happening in the Belgian Congo and now are the technologies and the actors,” Mr. Dewar said. “In some cases, things have gotten worse – because we have human rights legislation and protection that is available that wasn’t around when King Leopold was doing his exploitation.”

Various industries use these minerals – which go into capacitors that handle electric charges – including defence contractors, aerospace companies and the automotive industry. But consumer-facing electronics companies such as Research In Motion Ltd. and Phillips, which could face consumer backlash, have already joined with other companies and non-governmental organizations to work on ways to ensure supply chains remain free of minerals that lead to grave human rights violations in certain parts of the Congo and elsewhere.

Spurred mainly by the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act in the United States, which contains a clause on conflict minerals and is backed by the powerful U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, many affected companies publicly listed in the U.S. are now part of projects on the ground ranging from physical and digital “bag and tag” efforts that attempt to trace minerals from mine to smelters and beyond, as well as regional certification programs that are quickly being rolled into countries’ legal frameworks. The Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC) – which includes RIM, Canadian manufacturer Celestica, Microsoft Corp., Dell Inc. and many others – has been particularly active, developing a list of “conflict free” smelters for its various member companies.

Joanne Lebert, director of the Great Lakes program at Ottawa-based NGO Partnership Africa Canada, one of the co-founders of the famed Kimberly Process for “blood diamonds,” said Mr. Dewar’s legislation essentially provides a blueprint for how to source minerals responsibly from a region where violent crimes, particularly rape, are tied to “artisanal” extractive industries. About 200 companies, including RIM, Ms. Lebert added, are now participatants in regional activities aiming to enshrine the OECD guidelines on conflict minerals – which are now law in the DRC and in Rwanda.

“This is a much improved approach to Dodd Frank because it lays out for Canadian stakeholders and others on how to source responsibly from the region with intitatives that are actually being tested,” said Ms. Lebert, who advised Mr. Dewar on the bill. “It’s the type of enlightened guidance that’s been missing.”

Mr. Dewar concedes that arguing for this bill from the benches of the Official Opposition may not be enough to get it passed in Ottawa with a Conservative majority government, which has tended to champion the country’s resource and extractive sectors – and is in the middle of implementing a foreign policy that ties aid money more closely with Canadian mining companies overseas. The legislation, if passed, would require companies to lodge an annual, audited review of their supply chain practices, which would then be made public by the Department of Foreign Affairs. Instead, Mr. Dewar hopes to stir up a grassroots movement in support of the bill.

But in some ways, the change is coming anyway: The OECD guidelines, which Mr. Dewar’s bill would enshrine in Canada, are the main existing set of rules on the subject.

“Given that OECD [guidelines are] the only thing out there now, a lot of people will be following OECD due diligence,” says Darren Fenwick, senior government director with the Enough Project, a Washington, D.C.-based NGO that works to end crimes against humanity.

And companies such as capacitor-maker Kemet Corp., which supplies Apple Inc. and is the world’s largest user of tantalum, are proving that it is possible to source minerals without prompting an exodus from the DRC and further hurting poor miners. The region is so attractive partly because the minerals are located beneath relatively easy-to-move topsoil, rather than in more difficult terrain, but this has led to widespread so-called artisanal mining, where informal employees – sometimes toiling under threat of violence – work largely without protections in unsafe environments.

However, Kemet, according to documents on its website, has created a conflict-free supply chain by investing in a mine – as well as schools – in the DRC’s Katanga province (North and South Kivu provinces have been the source of most of the violence), and a public affairs adviser said their success has prompted calls and inquiries from other component makers anxious to adhere to the new rules.

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