Photo: flickr/Nic Redhead

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There are times when some of the most significant events in Parliament happen far from public view.

This week the chatter about politics is all about Paul Calandra’s tears — were they true remorse or chagrin at being frog-marched into the apologizer’s seat?

More substantively, the chatter is about the role the Speaker should play in guiding Question Period, and what the parties in the House might do if and when they get to vote on a combat role for Canada in the Middle East.

Less than a week ago, however, there was a vote in the House on a measure that could have positively affected the lives of millions, about which there has been virtually no chatter.

That vote was on a humble opposition MP’s private member’s bill.

The bill concerned Central Africa, a region that — like the Middle East (about which we seem almost obsessively preoccupied) — has been plagued by intractable brutality for many years.

The countries around the African Great Lakes, those giant bodies of water such as Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika that lie at the headwaters of the Nile, include the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda and Sudan. They are the source of much of the world’s supply of the rare minerals which are needed to keep our digital gadgets functioning. And they are also a significant source of better known minerals, such as gold, that make their way into all kinds products we consume.

Rare minerals have names like cassiterite, wolframite and coltan. They may not be familiar names, but without those minerals you could not be texting your aunt in Prince George or best friend in Cornerbrook.

Conflict minerals finance violence against civilians

Too much of the production of these minerals — both the rare and more conventional precious kind — happens in this area of acute conflict. And profits from ‘conflict minerals’ (as they have come to be called) play a big role in financing those who perpetrate the violence and brutality associated with these conflicts.

In March 2013, NDP MP and Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar put a private member’s bill before the House (Bill C-486) that would have helped curtail trade in conflict minerals.

It was a moderate and pragmatic bill.

Dewar proposed that the Canadian government oblige Canadian companies to follow ‘due diligence’ in all of their business dealings involving conflict minerals from the African Great Lakes region. That would mean due diligence at every point in the supply chain, from the original source to the store shelf.

Due diligence standards already exist. They were developed by the United Nations and by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (the OECD), of which Canada is a member.

The Bill would have obliged companies to conduct independent audits to determine the provenance of the minerals they acquire, in order to assure that none come from armed militia groups, and then to report publicly and fully on their due diligence processes.

The Bill’s only sanctions against non-complying companies would be moral suasion through public awareness. There were neither criminal nor monetary penalties in Dewar’s proposed new law.

Still, while lauding C-486’s good intentions, the Conservatives found all kinds of excuses for voting it down.

They said it was too geographically restrictive, limited to one region of Africa.

They said there is “no evidence to date” that mandatory reporting on due diligence is effective. They pointed to the U.S. Dodd-Frank law, which incudes similar provisions for the financial industry. That massive legislation is too new, they said, and we cannot yet judge its efficacy.

And, most of all, Conservatives worried about the how C- 486’s full supply chain provisions might have ‘unintended’ impacts on Canadian corporations.

Translation: Do not expect us to support any measure, however limited it may be, that might, in any way, make our friends in the ‘extractive sector’ uncomfortable.

Conservative MPs such as Lois Brown from southern Ontario spoke at some length about what she considered to be the excessive sweep and scope of Dewar’s modest proposal.

Brown made a particular point of noting the auditing costs C-486 would impose on companies. She did not weigh those costs against the potential for saving thousands of lives.

In fact, despite their rhetorical agreement on the underlying intentions of C-486, it seems the Conservatives would only agree to legislation if its requirements on Canadian companies were purely voluntary. To that suggestion, Hamilton area NDP MP Wayne Marston replied: “I come from farm country, and that is like saying to the fox that we trust it not to come near our henhouse. It would likely not work there.”

A deeply personal commitment for the Official Opposition Foreign Affairs Critic

For Dewar, this Bill was more than a pro-forma or mere political exercise. It was based on experiences that shook him profoundly when he had the opportunity to travel in the African Great lakes area. The Ottawa MP evoked those experiences when he spoke on his Bill in April of this year.

“Five years ago, I visited the Democratic Republic of Congo,” the NDP MP told the House, “A country equally beautiful and sad. For more than 15 years, Congolese government forces, rebel groups and private militias have been fighting to control the land and the abundant natural resources that have been the cause of this country’s misfortune.

“I spoke with Congolese government officials to see what was being done to enable a future of peace and sustainable development. The most striking response was not an answer but my question returned back to me. I was asked what I was doing. It was a fair question, because the truth is that the tragedy of the Congo is not merely a Congolese or an African problem. It is our problem, and the reason is in our phones and in our jewellery.”

Dewar then used some statistics to describe the scope of the horror that is being visiting on innocent civilians — especially women and girls — in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“For the record, here are some of the facts. The conflict that has been raging in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998 is the deadliest conflict since World War II. In 2011, the number of rapes was estimated at 48, not per year, per month or per day, but per hour. Rape is used as a weapon of war. In 2012, two million people were displaced. That is approximately the equivalent of the combined population of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.”

 And, as for the significance of the minerals Bill 486 sought to regulate and control:

“Conflict minerals generate $180 million per year for armed groups, literally keeping some militias in business. Up to 40 per cent of those working in the mines are children. These children, who are exploited and abused, are then prime targets for recruitment by armed groups.”

At the G8 Harper sounded like he agreed with Dewar

Dewar said he had made it a personal mission to raise awareness in Canada of the devastating impact of conflict minerals. And he might be excused if he thought he was on the same wavelength on this issue as the current government. Here is the commitment the Prime Minister Harper made at the 2013 G8 meeting in Scotland.

” … we continue to support responsible, conflict-free sourcing of minerals from conflict-affected regions… We reaffirm our continued support for the OECD Due Diligence Guidance for Responsible Supply Chains of Minerals from Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas, and the International Conference of the Great Lakes Regional Certification Mechanism as part of global multilateral, multi-stakeholder efforts to combat the trade in conflict minerals through certification, responsible business conduct and respect for human rights.”

Those are clear and unequivocal words.

However, when given the chance to put their money (or their friends’ money) where their mouth is, the majority Conservatives demurred.

It all looks to be part of a Harper foreign policy that is full of much self righteous bluster, but all too often very little meaningful action.

Teddy Roosevelt’s famous dictum, for a rather different age when militarism and imperialism were openly touted virtues, was: “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.”

Harper’s motto — especially when it comes to anything related to human rights, social justice or humanitarian needs — could be: “Speak loudly, but wield a tiny stick.”

Photo: flickr/Nic Redhead

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...