Human rights activist flees DRC after receiving threats over child cobalt mining lawsuit


After receiving death threats for his work in exposing the world’s largest tech companies of being complicit in the deaths of children in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC),  Congolese human rights activist Auguste Mutombo, was forced to flee the country with his family.

In December, the Guardian revealed that a group of families from DRC were launching landmark legal action against Apple, Google, Tesla, Microsoft and Dell. They claim they aided and abetted the deaths and injuries of their children, who were working in mines that they say, were linked to the tech companies.

Mutombo, executive director of Alternatives Plus, a DRC-based NGO that works to improve conditions in the artisanal mining sector, helped facilitate the field research that formed the evidence base for the suit.

He said that shortly after details of the lawsuit went public, he received dozens of death threats in person and via telephone, and text messages from people who claimed to be members of mining cooperatives.

Mutombo said he did not go to the police as he did not trust the authorities to protect him. Instead he moved his wife and children out of the country to a safe address in Zambia and went into hiding. He recently returned to DRC and said he wished to go public to try and force the authorities to protect his family from further threats.

“I was expecting some problems following the filing of the lawsuit, but the magnitude of the threats made me very fearful for the safety of my family and meant we had to go into hiding for the time that the lawsuit was in the media,” said Mutombo.

“In the past, there have been several cases of murders of human rights activists and the lawsuit threatens the economic interests of many companies in the region. It will not stop me doing my work, but there needs to be better protection for activists.”

Siddharth Kara, a Harvard academic and anti-slavery activist, worked with Mutombo to conduct field research in cobalt mines across DRC. He said action has been taken to ensure that the families who are acting as plaintiffs in the case are protected.

“We are monitoring the situation in the DRC very closely. We are the only two people in contact with the plaintiffs and our team on the ground, and we have made arrangements to ensure their safety,” he said.

“The aggressive threats against our colleagues after the filing of our lawsuit are further testament to the fact that the humanity of the impoverished people of the Congo, who mine cobalt in horrendous conditions, is considered little more than an impediment to the immense profits being generated by global cobalt industry.”

The lawsuit, which was filed by human rights law firm International Rights Advocates, is seeking damages for forced labour and further compensation for unjust enrichment, negligent supervision and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

It is the first time that any of the tech companies have faced such a legal challenge.

Cobalt is essential to power the rechargeable lithium batteries used in millions of products sold by Apple, Google, Dell, Microsoft and Tesla every year. The insatiable demand for cobalt, driven by desire for cheap handheld technology, has tripled in the past five years and is expected to double again by the end of 2020. More than 60% of cobalt originates in DRC, one of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world.

All the companies named in the lawsuit have said that they are committed to the responsible sourcing of minerals, which includes upholding the human rights of workers at any tier of global supply chains. (Source: The Guardian)