Amnesty International, cobalt mining

How Amnesty International Helps Get Kids Out of Cobalt Mines

Image credit: Amnesty International

“If we fail our environment, we fail to protect our human rights.” – Ban Ki-moon

From toxic waste dumping in the oceans to child labour and ecosystems destroyed by mining, Seema Joshi, Amnesty International’s Co-Director for Global Thematic Issues, and her team are working for human rights and the planet. Seema shares some of their challenges and successes with Parvati Magazine. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Parvati Magazine: Why are human rights and environmental issues intertwined?

Seema Joshi: Human rights and environmental issues are intertwined on many levels. Perhaps the clearest example is where oil contamination devastates the environment, which leads to negative impacts on the right to health, the right to water, the right to livelihood.

Amnesty International investigates cobalt supply chains

Parvati Magazine: Your November 2017 report ”Time to Recharge” ranked technology companies on progress in monitoring and improving their cobalt supply chains. Has the cobalt mining landscape shifted since then? What is the next key challenge you see for this issue?

Seema Joshi: Since our report came out, it’s been great to see a little movement in the industry. For example, the car company Renault, which came out the lowest in our rankings, has moved up because it now publishes its list of smelters and refiners. BMW has also produced a list which is something they had not done before. And we’ve had discussions with Daimler about how they are taking efforts to improve their processes.

But with that said, we still don’t have companies disclosing how they’re proactively taking steps to address human rights abuses as well as environmental devastation across the supply chain. It’s been years now that the human rights abuses are well known. No company can say they don’t know. So I think that we should be further along than we are.

Parvati Magazine: Three years since you exposed the problem of human rights abuse in cobalt mining for smartphone and electric car batteries, sustainable cobalt mining is still far from a reality. But a smartphone is practically a requirement to do business today, and electric cars are needed in our pivot away from fossil fuels. So what can we do as consumers?

Seema Joshi: That’s a good question. As part of the renewables discussion at Amnesty International we support the call for governments to take climate change more seriously. The 1.5C target needs to be met. So of course we’re not against electric vehicles. The issue is we shouldn’t be going to electric vehicles off of human exploitation. Our main message is that governments need to be tougher and regulate companies not only when it comes to climate targets, but also when it comes to protecting human rights abuses, ensuring for example that companies conduct adequate human rights investigations in their supply chains. Consumers can then check to see if there were dangerous conditions or children involved. We can see what steps have been taken to address the harm. Without more transparency, consumers are in a difficult position.

Parvati Magazine: What are some of the challenges Amnesty has faced in holding corporations to account for human rights abuse?

Seema Joshi: One challenge we face during corporate research is the recognition that companies are powerful entities. If you make a mistake it could lead to legal actions.

The other key challenge is that it shouldn’t [fall to] organizations like Amnesty doing this research to get companies to take their responsibilities seriously. They should be doing it otherwise. [But] unless we have the investigation and the research, getting the change from companies is hard to achieve. So it puts more and more focus on the need for ongoing monitoring research.

Success with the Le Bon Pasteur Alternative Livelihood program

Parvati Magazine: Can you share a success story with us?

Seema Joshi: We have had the ability to influence industry when it comes to cobalt. In our report we refer to the Bon Pasteur Alternative Livelihood program, an NGO in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As a result of being highlighted in our report, they have been receiving more support in removing children from mining and providing alternative livelihood training to women.

Palm oil is another area we work quite heavily in. We did a report a few years ago [documenting] serious labour abuses, including children working on these plantations, which under Indonesian laws was referred to as the worst forms of child labour, as well as mass discrimination against female workers on these plantations, arbitrary penalties, extensive hours worked to make a daily minimum wage. Conditions amounting to forced labor under ILO [International Labour Organization] definitions. Over the year that followed [this report], we saw quite a few changes on the plantations.

Seema Joshi is the Co-Director, Global Thematic Issues, at Amnesty International, leading the organisation’s investigative and advocacy work on corporate accountability. Prior to this, she worked with the NGO Global Witness. Seema is a Canadian lawyer called to the Alberta Bar in 1999.

Image credit: Amnesty International