Why Responsible Mining Is a Human Rights Imperative

The urgency to increase critical mineral security has sent more economically developed countries racing into resource-rich, less economically developed countries at unprecedented speed. There has been a sharp increase in mining projects in Africa and South America for commodities such as lithium, graphite, copper, nickel, and rare earths. While these commodities are critical for the renewable energy transition and reaching net-zero ambitions, this cannot come at the expense of people.

The mining sector’s legacy of human rights violations is centuries long and has been marked by colonialism, blood diamonds, land grabbing that displaces indigenous groups, food contamination that affects nearby communities, and fatal force against workers protesting for livable wages.

However, on the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it is important to celebrate how it laid the foundation for prioritizing responsible mining while also acknowledging the scale of the work that needs to be done to see the UDHR fully adopted.

The UDHR is the bedrock of the many of the standards and principles that govern the mining sector, including the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, and the International Council of Minerals and Metals Mining Principles. Many global mining companies have committed themselves to respecting human rights laid out in the UDHR—including Rio Tinto, Anglo American, BHP, and Vale

Although the UDHR was signed 75 years ago, significant progress still needs to be made in the mining sector to achieve the human rights standards it articulated. The Business and Human Rights Resource Center has a Transition Minerals Tracker to monitor human rights performance for six key critical minerals required for renewable energy technologies internationally. Between 2010 and 2022, it recorded 510 human rights abuse allegations internationally, led by Peru, Chile, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The UDHR can and should be a guiding force for the mining industry to do better. It remains profoundly relevant to the challenges mining workers and communities face today. For example, Article 25 of the UHDR states that “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.” Mining companies are still struggling to address the long-term environmental and health impact of their commercial activities on communities. For example, in October 2020, residents of Kabwe, Zambia, brought a class action lawsuit against Anglo American on behalf of 100,000 children and women who have suffered significant health consequences due to lead exposure from local extraction. Kabwe is one of the most polluted parts of the world. Medical studies have shown that residents continue to have record-high lead levels, which has caused cognitive damage and organ failure.

Similarly, decades of uranium mining in Niger generated 20 million tons of radioactive tailings that have contaminated groundwater that 100,000 people rely on for drinking. The waste will be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. Both Zambia and Niger are examples of where mining companies needed to adopt pro-human rights practices from project development. The crisis in Niger could have been avoided if the company, Orano, had sealed the tailings off on a secure site, but this was not done.

Challenges with human rights are also pervasive domestically. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps revoked a permit for a Minnesota nickel mine, PolyMet, because it did not comply with the water quality standards set by the Fon du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, a downstream Native American tribe. The water would be polluted by the mine and processing plant, adversely affecting food security.

Adopting the UDHR in its fullest manner would effectively govern all dimensions of mining. Mining needs to be done responsibly to prevent negative health and environmental consequences, ensure food security, and protect cultural heritage and biodiversity. Adhering to international guidelines would drive mining companies to treat workers and communities with respect, pay fair wages, and provide adequate healthcare.

The Minerals Security Partnership, a U.S.-led effort to build critical minerals security with 13 of its allies, is accelerating efforts to honor the principles laid out in the UDHR. It has prioritized the development of a framework that supports transparency, community welfare, and environmental protection. As U.S. State Department Under Secretary Jose Fernandez noted, “We want to involve the communities affected by potential projects in the decision-making process.”

The impact of the UDHR on the mining sector has been notable, but there is still so much to do. Article 30, which concludes the UDHR, notes that no state, group or person has “Any right to engage in any activity or to perform any act aimed at the destruction of any of the rights and freedoms set forth herein.” This should be the foundation of efforts to boost critical minerals security.

Gracelin Baskaran is research director and senior fellow with the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Director, Project on Critical Minerals Security and Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program