“Every tunnel out there is eventually going to collapse. But will it happen while I am in it?”
Venezuela, (Brussels Morning Newspaper) Chinese money and influence have crept into Africa, quietly corrupted African governments, undermined the rule of law, perpetrated human rights violations upon the population, and in doing so, have achieved their ultimate objective of cornering the market in obtaining the most critical minerals necessary for modern life in the 21st century.
These critical resource minerals (CRMs) are no doubt abundant on the African continent, and China is taking advantage of Western intransigence at helping Africa modernize.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), China illegally employs up to 40,000 child laborers to mine cobalt and other metals critical to high-tech industries. What’s more, journalists who seek to condemn these actions are subjected to torture and worse by a compliant DRC government.
The crimes referred to above were highlighted at the July 14th Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Hearing on “Child Labor and Human Rights Violations in the Mining Industry of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).” Speakers focused on child and forced labor, disregard for worker safety, environmental degradation at DRC cobalt (and other) mining operations, and moreover, the impact of the Chinese on all of the above.
Over 70 percent of the world’s cobalt comes from the DRC province formerly called ‘Katanga’. Cobalt is the primary component for extending the life of high-tech and electric vehicle batteries, the principal users, followed by smartphones, and laptop and desktop computers.
Through market manipulation and corruption, while the West has been asleep at the wheel, China now oversees the largest producers of cobalt in the world.
Human rights groups have well documented the abject horrors faced by children as young as eight (and perhaps younger) – Terrence Collingsworth, Executive Director of International Rights Advocates, visited the DRC mining district in 2019. While there, an (understandably anonymous) non-governmental organization (NGO) introduced Collingsworth to former child miners and family members of children who were killed when the narrow tunnels used for extracting cobalt and other ores collapsed.
That December, his organization spearheaded litigation against major tech companies and local operators on behalf of 14 Doe Plaintiffs using the ‘Trafficking Victims Reauthorization Act’. The plaintiffs were either guardian of children killed or maimed in mining accidents or the children themselves.
At the Congressional Hearing this July, to emphasize the depth of the horrors, Collingsworth quoted the words of a young boy who had been maimed in a tunnel collapse – “We all know that every tunnel out there is eventually going to collapse. The only question for us is – Will it happen while I am in it?”
These families are seeking legal action against mostly Chinese mining companies and other end users of DRC cobalt. They also desire compensation for the dead and maimed children and an international movement to force those responsible for this flagrant disregard for the lives and safety of children and adult miners, and the concomitant environmental degradation, to force the DRC and (mostly Chinese) mine operators to take remedial measures.
Make no mistake – The corruption in the DRC begins at the top, with President Felix Tshisikedi. Child labor of any kind is supposedly forbidden by both Congolese law and international rules and norms, but rather than enforce the law, Tshisikedi and regional governors imprison and torture journalists who call out their abdominal crimes. They also turn a blind eye to the Chinese operating practices, because it economically suits them to do so.
It is widely known that Tshisikedi himself is heavily involved in the illegal critical mineral trade.
Torture has long been a way of life for the DRC, even before the 2003 civil war, according to the group ‘Freedom from Torture’. The group had documented the use of torture by former president Joseph Kabila to silence political opposition. Current president Tshisikedi has carried on that tradition, purportedly using barbaric medieval tools.
Just last week, New Yorker Contributor Nicholas Narchos was arrested in Lubumbashi, the capital of the former Katanga province, and flown to Kinshasa, where he was held on charges of ‘terrorism’, until released after political intervention from the U.S. government.
Was this arrest random or a reaction to the Congressional Hearing on Capitol Hill? Perhaps not, but nonetheless, a message was sent to the West – Leave the DRC alone.
At the bipartisan hearing, co-chair Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R, NJ) lamented the longstanding lack of interest by the U.S government but focused primarily on what the U.S., and Congress, can be doing to address the DRC’s difficulties; from human rights and humanitarian concerns to addressing the issue of corruption.
Smith recalled the tragic history of the former Belgian Congo, where the men of villages conscripted to work on rubber plantations were often killed, their hands severed and collected to demonstrate to Belgian overseers that bullets were not wasted on these “savages.”
To Rep. Smith, “…just as rubber once motivated the greed of men, today it is the quest for cobalt for batteries and lithium for solar panels to power the so-called Green Economy that motivates human rapacity.”
And it is the barons of the Green Economy who can have the greatest leverage on both China and the DRC, said both Collingsworth and Sasha Lezhnev, representing ‘The Sentry’ (an international group seeking to disable predatory networks).
U.S. and European automotive and electronics companies, if they can be persuaded to focus their energies and put up a united front, can use their combined buying power to force even the Chinese mining companies to stop the abuse.
Western governments, too, could pool their influence, but the window for reform is narrowing to use combined clout to influence the outcome of the 2023 DRC national elections.
The 2018 DRC election was marked by fraud and there is grave concern that the 2023 election will be a repeat performance.
Lezhnev and other speakers urged Congress and the Biden Administration to play key roles in provoking the industry to move more robustly on cobalt supply chain reforms and to combat corruption in the DRC mining sector. Whether President Biden, whose commitment to a Green Economy is one of the central organizing principles of his administration, will challenge green tech to risk even a temporary slowdown in their access to cobalt remains to be seen.
The solutions here are not easy, but given the stakes involved, it is not only worth doing but necessary. The window for continued intervention is quickly closing, but while it is open, the West must act.
Children should be in school, not buried in tunnels 80 feet deep and 20 inches across, seeking cobalt ore for cell phones and batteries.
Stop the corruption and you have a fighting chance to stop child labor atrocities.
Free, fair, and inclusive elections in the DRC are but one way for real reforms to take place.