Human rights abuses behind smartphones: Amnesty International on cobalt mines in the DRC

Hi all!

I wanted to highlight and bring your attention to a new publication of [Amnesty International] ( about human rights abuses in cobalt mines in the DRC. The report is very informative and I’m pleased that this topic is gaining more weight in the public debate.

The existence of poor working conditions and human rights violations in mining has been an important driver for Fairphone to start the campaign for fairer electronics in 2010. One of the first activities in the campaign was the trip to copper and cobalt mines in the south of the DRC. There we’ve seen first hand the lacking health and safety measures and the presence of children trying to make a buck. See how it was on this video. Further in the campaign, we realized mining is not the only problematic sector related to the production of electronics. In 2013 Fairphone became a social enterprise to produce a smartphone ourselves. By doing this we open up the complex value chain and tackle problems step-by-step, from mining and design, to manufacturing and lifecycle.

In the area of mining, we have been looking into cobalt but prioritized the four ‘conflict minerals’ tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold (out of over 40 (!) minerals needed to produce a smartphone) because of the wider and particular urgent scope of problems associated with them, including the effects of the US’ legislation the Dodd Frank Act. This ruling requires companies to disclose the usage of specifically these four minerals and the extent to which the origins can be traced back to the DRC and neighboring countries in the African Great Lakes Region. The specific mentioning on these four materials resulted in a de facto trading embargo in the region, leaving many mine workers unemployed or forced into the informal and illegal sector. Upon producing the first Fairphone, we joined forces with traceability initiatives in the DRC to stimulate sourcing from tin and tantalum mines as an economic activity for local communities. Although these mines are validated conflict-free (cleared from interference of armed groups) and the conditions are periodically assessed on criteria like health and safety and child labor, these problems can’t be solved overnight and there is still a lot to improve.

Fairphone believes that working towards improvement in affected areas is preferred over excluding them. It is crucial to closely collaborate with suppliers, partners and other stakeholders that are willing to jointly invest in transparency and more responsible alternatives. Besides joining existing traceability initiatives, Fairphone is setting up and almost finalized supply chain collaborations for tungsten and gold for the Fairphone 2. This means we go beyond securing a (often meaningless) paper trail that states a certain product or component is “DRC-free”, but we literally travel throughout the supply chain with relevant partners and connect mining initiatives to our suppliers and sub-suppliers. To see how we actually do this, also watch this video about tin, tantalum and tungsten and this video about gold.

Cobalt, copper, and other minerals are next in our roadmap to increase transparency and improve our supply chain, including research on using recycled material instead of virgin mined material. For cobalt, we know that it is used in the production of our batteries. For the Fairphone 2, we are working together with 3Sun (battery manufacturer) and Maxell (battery cell supplier), which are both not mentioned in the Amnesty report. Although we’ve been working hard to step-by-step trace materials to their source, there is still a long way to go and it is not unlikely that in some way or another the supply chain of the Fairphone 2 is connected to mines with conditions as described by Amnesty International.

That takes us back to the importance and relevance of our original goal as a social enterprise: to bring more transparency in the supply chains of electronics and provide a platform to work together with industry, consumers, policy-makers and others to improve. This way we can move beyond fighting the symptoms of poverty, such as child labor, but tackle root causes and flaws in the economic system at large.

We’re excited to hear your thoughts on this topic! Share them below.


I wonder, would it make make sense to post how many of the FP suppliers use certified smelters (based on the Conflict-Free Smelter Program audit (CFSP)?

Or at least the “ratio” in the list of suppliers? I still think this would be better than nothing. Or have these things already changed so much that this kind of auditing is already outdated? I’m not an expert that’s why I’m asking, don’t get me wrong, I’m happy about every new post here.

Update: Examples: Apple, Nikon. Or is this just “green washing”?

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Bibi, Thanks for sharing this AI report and also for detailing again your proceedings and visions. Although there’s still a long way to go I’m convinced you’re moving in a good direction!
I’m eagerly waiting for more reports (from AI et al) not only accusing multinationals which often enough don’t care but also illustrating that there is hope and that there are organizations and people supporting them who DO care…!!

A new SOMO report on cobalt mining in the DRC (with a very interesting 13-minute documentary):
(direct link to the report)