The extraction of mineral resources has long been a prime motivation behind the colonial exploitation of developing nations, and this is no less the case today. The batteries that power our cellphones, computers, and emerging renewable energy technologies require cobalt and several other metals that belong to a group collectively known as Rare Earth Elements (REEs). China is among the top producers of cobalt and currently produces over ninety percent of the world’s REEs, and dominating the REE market is crucial to China’s goal of becoming the global leader in renewable energy and computer technology. As fears of a potential cobalt shortage begin to concern investors, China is looking abroad to meet its cobalt and REE needs. Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the richest reserves of these metals, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is currently the top producer of cobalt globally.
To meet its technology and energy goals, China has begun investing heavily in cobalt and REE mines in the DRC. While roughly eighty percent of the cobalt mined in the DRC is produced by mining operations that make use of heavy machinery, the remaining twenty percent of cobalt production comes from hand-dug mining operations that rely on child labor.
Since the 1970s, the goal of eliminating child labor has achieved near-universal consensus. In 1989, the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which expanded on the child labor protections in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Article 32 of the CRC recognized a child’s right to be protected from any work that “is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development.” Some of this language is drawn from the International Labor Organization’s 1973 Minimum Age Convention which requires that state parties adopt a minimum age requirement for employment: fifteen years of age for “developed” nations, and fourteen years of age for “developing” nations. Article 7 of the Convention allows children between the ages of thirteen and fifteen to engage in “light work” that will not negatively impact the child’s health or impair their access to education. No reasonable interpretation of Article 7 would extend the definition of “light-work” to include labor at hand-dug mines.
For its part, the DRC has recently adopted a revised mining code that includes, inter alia, penalties for the use of child labor. The DRC has established a minimum working age of sixteen and taken institutional steps to comply with the Minimum Age Convention and CRC, including the establishment of several government agencies to specifically address child labor law violations. However, these meager steps are rendered entirely ineffective as the DRC has not conducted any legal observations of mining sites. In its 2018 report on child labor in the county, the US Department of Labor noted that such direct observation and oversight is essential to the successful elimination of child labor abuses. The failure of the DRC to properly investigate these abuses is a violation of the Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law (Basic Principles). Article Two of the Basic Principles obligates a nation to “[i]nvestigate violations effectively, promptly, thoroughly and impartially.” Furthermore, Article Four of the CRC requires that all Parties to the Convention pursue all necessary measures to ensure the “economic, social and cultural rights” of the child “to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international co-operation.” If the DRC’s inaction is a consequence of inadequate resources, signatories to the CRC must coordinate to provide the DRC with the resources to regularly observe and investigate.
The scramble to acquire extractable REEs and cobalt is encouraging the use of child labor throughout Sub-Saharan Africa—a rush largely driven by China’s ambitious economic plans and disregard for international labor standards. As mechanisms for the international prosecution of private, non-state human rights violators are still nascent, effectively tackling the issue of child labor in REE and cobalt mines will require a multifaceted approach involving national governments, international corporations profiting from these practices, and a robust public response to hold these actors accountable. However, developing the capacity for nations such as the DRC to conduct on-site labor observations is a crucial first step towards the abolition of child labor. REEs will continue to be a critical part of technological development and the move towards renewable forms of energy, but a framework for ensuring international labor and human rights standards in the mining process is essential.