Chinese mining companies operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) need to do more to prevent their operations from leading to human rights abuses, Amnesty International warned today in a new report.
Profits and Loss: Mining and human rights in Katanga, examines the impact of the mining industry in south-eastern DRC.
The report documents a number of serious abuses involving local and foreign companies including forced evictions - illegal under international law - and dangerous and exploitative working conditions.
The report pays particular attention to the role of Chinese companies, which are on course to become the most influential and powerful foreign economic actors in the extractive sector in the DRC - a country with some of the world's most important mineral reserves.
China also imports significant amounts of cobalt and copper from the DRC, much of which continues to be extracted by small-scale miners - also known as artisanal miners - using handheld tools, and often working in terrible conditions.
"Mining operations in the DRC have resulted in decades of abuse against artisanal miners and the neighbouring communities," said Audrey Gaughran, Director of Global Issues at Amnesty International.
"The DRC authorities have not only failed to prevent mining companies and traders abusing rights, they have themselves violated human rights to facilitate mining operations."
When questioned by Amnesty International, several of the companies included in the report attempted to absolve themselves of any responsibility by highlighting the authorities' involvement in the abuse.
"The failure of the DRC authorities to protect human rights does not let the companies off the hook for their own actions and omissions. Disturbingly, some companies pointed to police involvement in an attempt to legitimize their own contribution to human rights violations," commented Gaughran.
Under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, companies have a responsibility to respect all human rights.
Governments of countries where companies are headquartered, including China, also have a responsibility to ensure that their companies do not abuse human rights when operating in the DRC.
"We urge all companies with mining interests in the DRC to end the excuses and start demonstrating they are serious about respecting the rights of the communities where they operate," said Gaughran.
In one case highlighted in the report, 300 families were forcibly evicted from their homes in Luisha when a Chinese company, Congo International Mining Corporation (CIMCO), was given the mining rights to the site in the centre of the town.
After a local official gave only two weeks' notice, families were taken to a new site in trucks that community members say belonged to CIMCO. The community was simply left there, with no housing or other facilities. They face an uncertain future, with no guarantee they can remain at the new site.
One of those affected told Amnesty International: "We have to start again from scratch... Life is much more difficult here than in the old place."
Mining operations have also restricted communities' access to water. On 19 April 2012 COMILU, a Chinese-Congolese joint venture, accompanied by police, used bulldozers and diggers to excavate a deep trench about 3 metres wide, blocking off a rural road crossing near Luisha. Local people had used the road for decades to reach their fields and to access water.
With this route closed off they had to spend considerably longer travelling to and from their fields and water source. When people protested about the trench, police fired live ammunition in the air and one man was killed by a stray bullet.
The majority of mining in the DRC continues to be done by artisanal miners in dangerous and exploitative conditions.
Abuses against artisanal miners remain prevalent in Katanga. Scores die or are seriously injured every year. Miners often work with bare hands, without protective clothing and in poorly ventilated underground shafts where temperatures can be extremely high.
They receive very little for the minerals they extract and face systemic exploitation. The ore they extract is sold through an opaque supply chain to companies and countries outside the DRC.
At Tilwezembe mine 30km from the town of Kolwezi, Amnesty International found evidence of abusive and harmful labour conditions and ill-treatment. Frequent injuries and some fatal accidents occurred at the mine site - including as a result of landslides, falling boulders and asphyxiation due to a lack of adequate ventilation.
The artisanal miners at Tilwezembe sold their ore to Misa Mining, a private trading company operating at the site. State agencies, including police, were also present at Tilwezembe to oversee mining but did nothing about the appalling, life-threatening working conditions. Misa Mining claimed it was unaware of human rights problems at Tilwezembe.
"Greater transparency in the supply chain could help to prevent abuses such as those we found at Tilwezembe," said Gaughran.
"If all companies involved in the extractive industry carried out due diligence checks to ensure that they are not purchasing ore and minerals extracted under exploitative and degrading conditions, this would go a long way to clean up the mineral trade."