Campaign group Global Witness says it has uncovered “compelling evidence” that minerals linked to armed conflict and human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been laundered through an influential due diligence scheme.

Major companies including Apple, Intel and Tesla use the International Tin Supply Chain Initiative (ITSCI) to responsibly source tin, tantalum and tungsten (3T metals) from the African Great Lakes region, which encompasses countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.

By bagging and tagging minerals at approved sites, the certification scheme works to ensure commodities are not from mines controlled by militias or where human rights abuses take place.

But field research from Global Witness finds the ITSCI is verifying a significant amount of minerals from unregulated mines in the DRC, including ones reportedly occupied by armed groups and where children frequently work.

“In one mining area [Nzibira], the investigation found that up to 90% of minerals introduced into the scheme in Q1 2021 did not come from mines validated for meeting security and human rights standards,” the report says.

Global Witness, which documented similar contamination problems at another 10 locations, suggests ITSCI’s failures are “systemic” and the certification group is even overlooking red flags at its sites.

“ITSCI’s minimal field staff and lack of oversight make it easy for miners and traders to launder minerals. Sources further allege that, without authorisation, ITSCI field staff actively collaborate with miners and officials to launder minerals and in some cases take a cut of the illicit proceeds,” the report says.

The NGO alleges smugglers are also trafficking illicit minerals out of the DRC and into Rwanda, where they are then stamped as responsibly sourced under the ITSCI scheme.

Given the vital role of these minerals in the manufacture of various consumer products, including smartphones, computers and automotive systems, foreign companies are being urged to ramp up their due diligence efforts.

“Smelters, downstream companies and other industry programmes shouldn’t rely on ITSCI,” says Alex Kopp, a campaigner at Global Witness. “Instead, companies need to properly check their supply chains and take action, and governments need to hold them accountable.”

“But it is a tricky situation as the whole system of dealing with 3T conflict minerals from the African Great Lakes region basically depends on ITSCI,” Kopp tells GTR.

Drawing on government data, the Global Witness report says smelters in Asian countries including Thailand and Malaysia have likely sourced conflict minerals stamped as ITSCI-approved, potentially exposing major multinational companies.

The NGO says there is evidence two of the largest smelters of 3T metals mined in the African Great Lakes region, MSC and Thaisarco, bought from export companies suspected of buying tainted minerals.

Tesla, Motorola, Apple and Intel all listed MSC and Thaisarco as suppliers in 2020, the report notes.

None of these companies were immediately available for comment.

The research comes as western governments work to clamp down on human rights and environmental risks within global supply chains.

The European Commission has published a proposal for a broad piece of legislation, which would require companies with more than 500 employees and US$150mn annual turnover to carry out due diligence on their entire value chains.

If passed, the regulation would build on the EU’s pre-existing Conflict Minerals Regulation which has been effective since January 2021 and covers the 3T metals and gold.

The Dodd-Frank Act, which came into force in the US in 2010, mandates stock exchange-listed companies to track and trace these same minerals and metals within their supply chains and declare whether they are free from conflict risks.

Nonetheless, the Global Witness report calls for the European Commission to “close loopholes” in the minerals regulation and to introduce penalties – and likewise says the US legislation needs to be better enforced.

“It seems to be up to US companies if they want to report under the Dodd-Frank Act, and there are no real penalties if they fail to comply,” Kopp tells GTR.

“Companies that fail to carry out due diligence should risk penalties, and the quality of reporting by firms needs to be improved. Risk reporting is currently really low quality and lacks detail,” he adds.

As for the ITSCI scheme itself, Global Witness recommends an overhaul of its governance structure and says the due diligence scheme is being undermined by an apparent conflict of interest.

“ITSCI is run by two powerful tin and tantalum associations, International Tin Association, ITA and Tantalum-Niobium International Study Center, TIC, representing many of the major buyers of 3T minerals from the region, suggesting a troubling conflict of interest at the heart of the scheme,” the NGO says.

“A due diligence scheme is doomed to fail when powerful vested interests are calling the shots,” says Kopp.

When contacted by GTR, ITSCI rejected the claims made by Global Witness, saying the scheme plays a “credible and valuable role” in responsible sourcing of 3T minerals.

“ITSCI standards are 100% aligned with recommendations on risk management laid out in the OECD due diligence guidance for responsible supply chains,” it says. “Due diligence and management of risk is not equivalent to certification and ITSCI does not claim to provide assurance or certification. The OECD guidance does not require guarantees of conflict free minerals.”

ITSCI also rejected any assertion it tolerates deliberate misuse of the programme or ignores red flags at its mines, and says Global Witness is yet to submit evidence of such allegations through its whistleblowing mechanism.

It likewise says it does not tolerate the laundering of smuggled minerals.

“This is evidenced and demonstrated through the extensive information that we publicly report…  including our incident lists. In 2021, 1,300 incidents were reported. This high number is not surprising since ITSCI operates in conflict-affected and high-risk areas and one successful outcome of the implementation of ITSCI is increasing transparency,” the statement says.

A spokesperson for the initiative tells GTR it is the role and responsibility of ITSCI field officers to monitor mining and trading activities in their area and report allegations and verified risks when identified.

“Should field officers be confirmed to be involved in any malpractice, they can and have been sanctioned,” they add.