MAC: Mines and Communities

Plugging a gaping mining hole

Published by MAC on 2005-10-20

Plugging a gaping mining hole

By Madelaine Drohan, Toronto Globe and Mail

October 20, 2005

Canada loves to boast about its international prowess in mining and energy. Our politicians tell anyone who'll listen that we're world leaders in knowledge, technology and people, that our companies operate globally and that almost 60 per cent of the world's exploration and mining firms are listed on Canadian exchanges.

But ask the government to ensure that Canadian companies respect environmental and human rights in their operations abroad -- as the Commons committee on foreign affairs and trade did in July -- and we're transformed into foot-dragging followers, our leadership role conveniently forgotten.

This image came through with striking clarity this week when the federal government responded to the committee's recommendations. Large sections of the response, tabled by Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew on Tuesday, could charitably be called fatuous. Others were downright misleading.

Take, for example, the response to the recommendation that the government establish clear legal norms in Canada so that Canadian companies are held accountable when their activities violate environmental or human rights abroad. That's the responsibility of states, says the government. They do this through their own domestic legislation. This makes sense until you consider that some of the countries in which Canadian companies are operating -- Congo is a prime example -- are often too riven by internal conflict, not to mention rampant corruption, to ensure that foreign corporations are respecting human rights.

The government says it doesn't like the idea of applying Canadian laws to activities abroad, except in special circumstances such as terrorist offences and torture by public officials. Again, this makes some sense (although Canada has bent the rules in the past when it boarded European trawlers it suspected of overfishing in international waters). The world would be a messy place if every country insisted that their laws applied everywhere.

The solution is to develop a set of international laws to cover global corporate activity. With our key role in global mining and energy, shouldn't we be leading the way? Not according to the government, which is content to "examine the best practices of other states."

The committee recommended that Canada work with fellow members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development to strengthen the Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Despite serious deficiencies, these guidelines are one of the few tools available for people to hold companies to account. The committee recommended they be made obligatory, rather than voluntary, a suggestion the government dismissed out of hand: "Any movement toward making the Guidelines binding or more legalistic would be contrary to the original intent of the drafters." The drafters are governments like that of Canada that see the gaping hole in international law but refuse to plug it with anything more meaningful than a lot of hot air.

In this, they are responding to pressure from multinational corporations that lobby governments furiously to ensure that their rights are protected by international laws, agreements and treaties that carry serious penalties if broken, while their obligations remain voluntary. Responsible mining and energy firms -- and there are a lot of them -- should recognize that this situation is not sustainable.

So, what is Canada planning to do? Talk, mostly. It will talk to Canadian companies about how to manage the impact when their activities are called into question. It will talk to other governments about what they are planning, and it will talk to Canadians in a series of five round tables over the next year.

We don't need more talk. We need a government to step up to the plate and lead an international effort to develop binding laws that govern corporate activity abroad. It's unfortunate, given the importance of mining and energy to Canada, that our government has rejected that role.

Madelaine Drohan is the author of Making a Killing: How and Why Corporations Use Armed Force to Do Business.

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