MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Liberals reject all-party call to regulate mining overseas

Published by MAC on 2005-10-19

Liberals reject all-party call to regulate mining overseas

Kelly Patterson ,The Ottawa Citizen

October 19, 2005

The Martin government won't take steps to ensure Canadian mining companies are held legally accountable for human rights and environmental violations overseas, despite the recommendations of an all-party committee of the House earlier this year.

The government believes its response to a June report by the standing committee on foreign affairs and international trade "underlines our commitment to sustainable development," Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew said yesterday.

He added that the government plans to address the issues raised by the panel in a series of roundtables this year.

The committee report came in the wake of a series of violent conflicts associated with Canadian mining operations overseas. They included three clashes that prompted Amnesty International to raise the alarm about alleged human rights abuses, and two cases in which Canadian companies have been accused of complicity in massacres.

The government response acknowledges that "a greater role for government is warranted in ensuring that Canadian companies" observe ethical standards, but argues that there is not enough of a consensus internationally on those standards for the government to make them mandatory.

Instead, the government will redouble its efforts to promote and develop voluntary social and environmental standards.

"That's just balderdash," said NDP MP Ed Broadbent, who sat on the foreign affairs committee.

"We've been talking about voluntary codes for 14 bloody years," Mr. Broadbent argued yesterday, pointing out that it was a major issue as far back as 1991, when he was appointed to run the Parliament-funded watchdog group now known as Rights & Democracy.

Graham Saul of Friends of the Earth Canada said the government's response amounts to saying, "'We don't know how to do this, so we're not going to do anything.'

"If holding companies to human rights standards is too complicated for the Canadian government, then the Canadian government is incompetent," Mr. Saul said, adding that its response "makes a mockery of Paul Martin's supposed commitment to human rights."

But Gordon Peeling, president of the Mining Association of Canada, called the response a "fair and balanced report on a difficult and complex issue."

He admitted that "clearly, improvements in performance (in the mining industry) are needed," but said legislating norms would be "heavy-handed."

He said he doesn't believe voluntary measures have failed, noting that his association, which represents more than 50 mining and related companies, is already seeing "real change" in response to a voluntary ethical code it adopted last year.

He also noted that the industry already has to conform to ethical guidelines to benefit from funding from agencies such as the World Bank.

But Fraser Reilly-King of the Halifax Initiative, an Ottawa-based coalition of about 20 non-governmental groups, said he was "shocked" by the government's response.

The Liberals did not even take up the recommendation that Canada join the U.S.-U.K. voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, which sets guidelines for the use of security forces, he said.

"The standing committee was talking about ... armed forces that intimidate, threaten and in some cases kill protesters. The report seems to speak to people upset at some trampled flowers."

The government's report says it will support the newly appointed UN Special Representative on business and human rights, whose mandate is to clarify ethical standards.

It will also work with the federal Export Development Corporation, which helps Canadian firms overseas, to make sure the projects it supports conform with best practices, and will train Trade Commission staff "to better advise" Canadian firms overseas.

As for legal constraints, the government says it's up to the host governments to ensure ethical standards are followed. "That's absurd," Joan Kuyek of the Ottawa-based advocacy group MiningWatch Canada, said yesterday. Countries such as Angola can hardly be expected to enforce Canadian-style standards, she argued.

The government has promised to continue to help developing countries strengthen and enforce regulations. It also says there are already legal remedies available to foreigners.

For example, people and corporations may be tried under the Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes Act for offences committed overseas.

But the act requires the co-operation of the country where the crimes were committed, Ms. Kuyek pointed out, noting that countries such as Sudan, which stands accused of orchestrating an ethnic-cleansing campaign on its oilfields, are hardly likely to help bring to trial foreigners accused of abetting its campaign.

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