Mining crucial to renewable energy linked to hundreds of alleged human rights violations

Over the past 12 years, hundreds of alleged human rights violations have been committed by more than 90 companies extracting minerals essential to clean energy production, a UK-based human rights organization said in a report released Wednesday.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Center said the alleged abuses concern global mining for copper, lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel and zinc, all of which are used in critical renewable technologies such as solar panels, vehicle batteries and wind turbines.

The abuses, the report concludes, stem from the failure of the United States and other countries to develop appropriate labor and environmental safeguards for the extraction of resources critical to the green energy transition, a key goal of the Inflation Reduction Act of the Biden administration.

In addition to alleged cases of sexual assault, child labour, arbitrary arrest and detention, the report’s database of 510 alleged violations also includes environmental crimes related to the contamination of drinking water and other natural resources, and violations of communities’ right to be consulted on projects that touch them.

The report contains allegations against 93 companies that operated 172 large-scale mining sites between 2010 and 2022.

Richard Pearshouse, director of Human Rights Watch’s Environment and Human Rights Division, called the report’s findings “incredibly worrying” and said governments must act quickly to anticipate the expected increase in demand and need for clean energy materials. are.

Pearshouse, who was not involved in the production of the report but is familiar with its findings, said governments and companies must quickly address environmental and human rights regulatory gaps to prevent an escalation of abuses as the energy transition accelerates.

In particular, Pearshouse focused on existing mineral supply chain audit and certification programs that are voluntary and sometimes led by mining companies themselves. Human Rights Watch has documented problems with those arrangements, with companies claiming that their raw material supplies have not engaged in improper conduct. In some cases, he said, auditors are paid by the audited companies.

Such self-monitoring is problematic, Pearshouse said, especially in light of governments’ incentives to purchase more clean energy materials.

“That’s what we’re particularly concerned about,” he said. “You’re seeing a scale-up of resources to access these critical minerals, but not yet a corresponding scale-up to ensure supply chains meet sustainability and human rights standards.”

In the United States, the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act directs more than $250 billion in new federal spending on clean energy, including the procurement of critical minerals and metals. The legislation is designed to help the United States meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally less than 1.5 degrees above the pre-industrial level.

The incentives of the Inflation Reduction Act, along with similar legislation being developed in the European Union and elsewhere, are fueling an increase in demand that the International Energy Agency says must increase sixfold by 2040 to decarbonise the world by 2050 – an important goal to announce the worst consequences of global warming.

On human rights and environmental safeguards, the Biden administration has taken some action, launching an Interagency working group to propose updates to 150-year-old US mining laws and issuing an executive order directing government agencies to review human and environmental laws. rights and forced labor risks, including in supply chains.

But human rights experts, including Pearshosue, say binding, independent and transparent safeguards for the sourcing of minerals and metals must be enacted significantly and quickly to meet the moment.

Caroline Avan, one of the report’s authors, said she and her co-authors were not opposed to mining. Responding to climate change is in itself a human rights duty, she said.

“We need to move away from fossil fuels and that requires minerals to produce renewable technologies,” Avan said. “There’s no getting around that, but it shouldn’t mean mining everywhere without any form of security.”

Avan and her co-authors recommend policy changes, including the introduction of mandatory human rights due diligence laws that require companies to identify, prevent and remedy human rights violations. While several non-binding frameworks exist, such as the 2011 United Nations Human Rights Council Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, transnational corporations remain stubbornly opposed to mandatory legal requirements.

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Human rights defenders also need stronger legal protection, Avan said, citing the report’s count of 133 alleged attacks against people working to protect the rights of individuals and communities.

“We see legislators passing legislation to encourage mining, but they should also work to reduce demand and promote mineral recycling to reduce pressure on local communities and the environment,” she said.

Some affected communities have offered their own solutions. The Indigenous Huancuire community, which is influenced by China Minmetals’ Las Bambas copper mine in Peru, has called for a communal ownership model where local communities have some degree of co-ownership in mines that affect them.

That model, they argue, would provide financial stability for local families and give affected communities a seat at the table when mining decisions are made. Avan said ideas like the community equity model are about “reinventing” the mining industry and the wider extractive sector “based on respect for human rights.”

The data analyzed by the report, collected from public sources such as news reports and court documents, also tracks incidents of corruption associated with net-zero mining of minerals and metals. Compared to the previous 11 years, the number of cases of corruption increased by almost 24 percent in 2022, with 10 cases in that year compared to 42 cases from 2010 to 2021.

Human rights experts have long argued that it is insufficient to rely on the legal systems of resource-mining countries, as some of those countries have weak rule of law where corruption has raged.

The Berlin-based watchdog organization Transparency International found that most of the materials critical to the energy transition are in countries that score poorly on indicators of corruption, including about 70 percent of the world’s cobalt, which is used in wind turbines.

The Business and Human Rights Resource Center report highlighted a $1.1 billion fine paid in 2022 by Glencore International AG and Glencore Ltd., both part of a Swiss mining company, following investigations in the US, Brazil and the UK which revealed that Glencore had engaged in bribery and corruption in Nigeria, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Brazil, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including making hidden payments “through intermediaries on behalf of foreign officials”.

“Increasing global demand for minerals may drive companies to cut back on environmental regulation and effective public participation, suggesting that corruption may be closely linked to many human rights abuses in the context of mining,” the report said.

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