UN examines gold imports to Switzerland


Melting point: Switzerland is home to four of the world’s largest gold refineries. Reuters/Jorge Silva

Illegal gold mining is being discussed at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Importing countries, including Switzerland, are highlighted.

This content was published on September 28, 2022 – 9:30 AM

Last week, a special rapporteur investigating the use of mercury in small-scale gold mining and a UN fact-finding mission in Venezuela submitted separate reports to the Human Rights Council (HRC) on the impact of gold mining on many communities and in the environment, mainly in the Amazon Basin.

UN investigators cited human rights abuses such as the sexual exploitation of women and children, mercury poisoning and child labour. Abuses affecting communities in areas where gold is illegally produced. The investigators pointed the finger at the responsibility of the countries that buy this metal.

According to reports, global buyers such as Switzerland – through which around two-thirds of the world’s gold trade passes – must ensure that human rights are respected throughout all supply chains.

High demand and lack of control

“It’s a serious problem,” Marcos Orellana, the UN special rapporteur on toxic substances, who has investigated human rights abuses in small-scale mining, told SWI swissinfo.ch. “In the coming months and years, we can expect human rights mechanisms to look more closely at the gold sector and the countries where refineries are located, including Switzerland.”

Switzerland is the world’s largest importer of gold. In 2021, the country bought 90 billion francs of the precious metal. Four of the world’s largest refineries are located in Switzerland. Two of them belong to foreign investors.

According to agency estimates Reutersaround 1,500 tons of gold passed in 2020 through Valcambi, Argor-Heraeus and PAMP, three of the main refineries in the country.

Last Tuesday, Marcos Orellana described to the CDH how pregnant women from indigenous communities who live downstream from gold mines in the Bolivian jungle have high levels of mercury in their blood because the fish they eat is contaminated. He also pointed out that sexual abuse and violence were common in mining areas. According to the reportexternal linkEven on islands in the Pacific, thousands of miles from gold mines, high levels of mercury have been found among residents. At issue: the global contamination of the oceans.

According to the UN, around 10 to 15 million people worldwide were directly employed in small-scale gold mining in 2017. Among them, around one million children and 4.5 million women.

Mercury, which is used to separate gold from other substances, is a highly toxic heavy metal. It accumulates in living organisms and can cause permanent damage in humans, including neurological disorders, reproductive disorders or death.

“The use of mercury is favored by the strong demand for gold in the financial markets and jewelers in the richest countries”, declared Marcos Orellana before the CDH. “Refineries in industrialized countries that purchase the gold lack adequate due diligence mechanisms to address the human rights abuses associated with mercury and small-scale gold mining.” The report highlights Switzerland and the UK as the world’s top gold importers in 2020.

“Switzerland does not have an adequate traceability system that requires refineries to know where the gold comes from and how it was extracted”, explains Marcos Orellana. “Switzerland’s traceability system stops at the intermediary country. This loophole is exploited by criminal organizations and drug cartels that traffic in mercury and gold.” According to the expert, Switzerland should do more to combat this practice. “While the gold industry is profitable, human rights suffer.”

SWI swissinfo.ch investigatedexternal link in the past about how almost 1,000 square kilometers of rainforest in the Madre de Dios region of southeastern Peru was destroyed when illegal miners sold their gold to buyers, some of whom were in Switzerland, ready to turn a blind eye.

After Marcos Orellana’s presentation at the HRC, more than 40 countries discussed the measures needed to reduce human rights violations in small-scale mining. The Swiss mission was not one of them. “In Switzerland, the gold trade is controlled by one of the strictest laws in the world. The law on the regulation of precious metals and money laundering in particular aims to ensure that gold processed by refineries does not come from fraudulent sources,” commented Swiss mission spokesperson Paola Ceresetti, in a written response to SWI swissinfo.ch.

dirty gold from venezuela

According to another report submitted to the CHR, armed violence among criminal groups that control the mines, exploitation of workers, sexual exploitation and terrible punishments inflicted by arbitrary justice are common in the mining region of Venezuela. The area known as Arco Minero was created specifically to exploit resources and attract foreign investment, as the country’s economy slumped. Residents and prospectors are often “caught in the crossfire in the struggle to control gold,” Francisco Cox, a member of the fact-finding mission, told reporters.

The expert said that non-state actors – such as criminal groups – as well as authorities – military and civilian leaders – with financial interests in mining operations, were responsible for murder, extortion, corporal punishment and sexist violence.

While official data is scarce and lacks transparency, various reports estimate that between 70 and 90 percent of gold in Venezuela’s mining region is produced illegally, Cox said.

The Venezuela report recommends that gold-importing countries adopt measures to prevent the laundering of gold and silver from gold mining areas in Venezuela.

Official Swiss data shows that the country stopped importing gold directly from Venezuela in 2016. There are now concerns that gold is running low in Switzerland after transiting through other countries.

Venezuela’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva did not respond to a request for comment from SWI swissinfo.ch on allegations of collusion and official involvement in the gold trade.

transparency request

As pressure mounts on importers to secure a cleaner supply, Swiss refiners recently pledged to remove all gold from indigenous lands from their supply chains. In 2020, the Japanese company Metalor, based in Neuchâtel, declared that it stopped buying gold from artisanal mines.

However, Swiss data show that large volumes of gold are imported from non-producing countries, mainly from the Middle East and Europe, which raises the question of the origin of the gold.

Many are demanding answers. The Society for Threatened Peoples, an NGO based in Bern, asked the federal customs authority in 2018 to publish records related to the exact origin of gold imported into Switzerland. She expects a decision from the Federal Court in the coming months. The NGO argues that it is in the public interest to know. She has long investigated illegal gold production in the Amazon and its links to Swiss refineries.

Text edited by Virginie Mangin. Translated from English by Dorian Burkhalter

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