How a New UN Group on ‘Critical Minerals’ Can Help Address Human Rights in Mining

April 30, 2024

The United Nations has formed a group of nearly 100 countries to draw up new guidelines to prevent environmental damage and human rights abuses associated with mining for “critical minerals,” such as cobalt, nickel, lithium.

The initiative will raise awareness about how the transition to a low-carbon economy requires minerals mined in jurisdictions that do not have good track records of protecting human rights. To advance a just transition, environmental standards and human rights need to be advanced together. The UN panel is charged with developing “a set of common and voluntary principles to build trust, guide the transition, and accelerate the race to renewables”—all commendable goals.

However, companies sourcing critical minerals need more than another set of principles. They need practical solutions to address systemic human rights risks in the supply chains of critical transition minerals.

Our Center’s research on cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has shown that the most salient human rights risks lie in the deepest layers of the cobalt supply chain—in the informal, or “artisanal” mining sector. Cobalt extracted in small-scale artisanal mining (ASM) is critical for meeting fast-rising global demands. ASM cobalt from the DRC accounts for up to 10% of global cobalt production. The supply chains of zinc, copper, gold, and graphite all involve artisanal mining associated with child labor and dangerous working conditions.

Globally, an estimated 40 million people are working in artisanal mines. Our research has shown that “formalization” of artisanal mining— the integration of informal activities in the formal supply chain by setting and enforcing responsible sourcing standards including, for example, providing artisanal miners with personal protective equipment, training the mining cooperative, and transforming current mine sites into less dangerous open pit extraction sites — can address the human rights challenges associated with artisanal mining.

The DRC is one of the UN initiative’s signatories. The relaunch of the DRC’s Entreprise Générale du Cobalt (EGC), a state-owned company created to monopolize the buying and selling of ASM cobalt and to establish responsible sourcing standards, could mainstream an ASM formalization approach and, if fully implemented,  position the DRC as a leader for responsible cobalt. To support the DRC in these efforts, the UN panel could serve as the platform for the EU and the United States to convene downstream car manufacturers and electronic companies to enlist their support for the formalization of ASM cobalt.


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