Mining Critical to Renewable Energy Tied to Hundreds of Alleged Human Rights Abuses

Over the past dozen years, hundreds of alleged human rights abuses have been committed by over 90 corporations mining minerals critical to the production of clean energy, a U.K.-based human rights organization said in a report released on Wednesday. 

The Business and Human Rights Resource Center said the alleged abuses involve global mining for copper, lithium, cobalt, manganese, nickel and zinc, all used in critical renewable technologies like solar panels, vehicle batteries and windmills. 

The abuses, the report concluded, stem from the failure of the United States and other nations to develop appropriate labor and environmental safeguards for resource extraction critical to the green energy transition, a key aim of the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act. 

Beyond alleged incidents of assaults, child labor, arbitrary arrests and detentions, the report’s database of 510 alleged violations includes environmental crimes involving the pollution of drinking water and other natural resources, and violations of communities’ rights to be consulted about projects that affect them. 

The report includes allegations against 93 companies operating 172 large-scale mining sites between the years 2010 and 2022. 

Richard Pearshouse, director of the Environment and Human Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, called the report’s findings “incredibly concerning” and said governments need to act quickly ahead of the anticipated acceleration in demand and need for clean-energy materials. 

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

In particular, Pearshouse took aim at existing mineral supply-chain auditing and certification schemes that are voluntary, and sometimes led by mining companies themselves. Human Rights Watch has documented problems with those schemes, whereby companies state that their supplies of raw materials have engaged in no improper conduct. In some cases, he said, auditors are paid by the companies being audited. 

Such self-policing is problematic, Pearshouse said, especially in light of incentives governments are pouring into the procurement of more clean-energy materials. 

“That’s where we’re particularly concerned,” he said. “You’re seeing a scale up of the means 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 over $250 billion in new federal spending toward clean-energy, including the procurement of critical minerals and metals. The legislation is aimed at helping the United States meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement, which seeks to limit global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally, less than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. 

The Inflation Reduction Act’s incentives, along with similar legislation being developed in the European Union and elsewhere, are spurring an increase in demand that the International Energy Agency has said will need to increase six-fold by 2040 for the world to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050—a key goal post to advert the worst impacts of global warming. 

As for human rights and environmental safeguards, the Biden administration has taken some action, launching an Interagency Working Group to suggest updates to the 150-year-old U.S. mining laws and issuing an executive order directing governmental agencies to review climate, environmental, human-rights and forced-labor risks, among other things, in supply chains. 

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

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

“We have to move away from fossil fuels and that requires minerals to manufacture renewable technologies,” Avan said. “There is no way around that, but it should not mean we have to mine everywhere without any sort of safeguards.” 

Avan and her co-authors recommend policy changes including the enactment of mandatory human rights due diligence laws, which would require companies to identify, prevent and remedy human rights violations. While several non-binding frameworks exist, like the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 2011 Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, transnational companies have remained stubbornly opposed to mandatory legal requirements. 

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Human rights defenders also need stronger legal protections, Avan said, citing the report’s count of 133 alleged attacks on people who work to protect individuals’ and communities’ rights. 

“We’re seeing lawmakers adopting legislation to incentivize mining, but they should also be working on reducing demand and promoting the recycling of minerals to reduce pressures on local communities and the environment,” she said. 

Some affected communities have offered their own solutions. The Indigenous Huancuire community, which is impacted by China Minmetals’ Las Bambas copper mine in Peru, has called for a community-equity model of ownership whereby local communities have a 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 decisions about the mine are made. Avan said ideas like the community-equity model are about “reimagining” the mining industry and the broader extractive sector “based on respect for human rights.” 

The data analyzed by the report, aggregated from public sources like news reports and court documents, also tracks incidents of corruption tied to net-zero mineral and metal mining. Compared to the preceding 11 years, incidents of corruption increased nearly 24 percent in 2022, with 10 cases that year compared to 42 cases from 2010 to 2021.

Human rights experts have long argued that relying on the justice systems of countries where resource extraction takes place is inadequate, as some of those countries have weak rule of law where corruption has festered.

The Berlin-based watchdog organization Transparency International found that most of the materials critical to the energy transition are located in countries that rank 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 A.G. and Glencore Ltd., both part of a Swiss mining company, following U.S., Brazilian and U.K. investigations that found Glencore had engaged in bribery and corruption in Nigeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Equatorial Guinea, Brazil, Venezuela, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, including by making concealed payments “through intermediaries for the benefit of foreign officials.” 

“Increasing global demand for minerals may incentivise companies to cut corners on environmental regulations and effective public participation, suggesting corruption may be closely connected to many human rights abuses in the context of mining,” the report said.

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