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International opinion tribunal condemns Canadian mining companies

Witnesses testify to systematic human rights violations in Latin America

The first hearing of the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal’s (PPT) session on the Canadian mining industry took place in Montreal last weekend. In a preliminary verdict, delivered on June 1, an international jury found Canadian mining companies operating in Latin America responsible for having failed to respect and ensure human rights in their operations, in contravention of international human rights law. The jury also found the Canadian state and Latin American states responsible for the continued violation of human rights.

The PPT is an independent international opinion tribunal mandated to examine human rights violations, particularly in cases where national and international justice systems have proved ineffective. The session on the Canadian mining industry was prompted by the fact that 75 per cent of the world’s mining companies are registered in Canada, whose “laws, tax structure and foreign policy [are] all very favourable to extractive industries,” according to the PPT’s website.

“I think processes like this tribunal are very important, because unfortunately the court systems that we have available to us here in Canada, at the international level, or in the countries where [the companies operate] do not work to hold [companies] accountable,” said Rachel Small, a student at York University who attended the hearing and works for the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network, in an interview with The Daily.

Socio-environmental impact

Meeting at the Comité d’éducation aux adultes de la Petite-Bourgogne et Saint-Henri over a two-day period, expert witnesses and members of communities affected by the Canadian mining industry in Latin America testified before an audience of about 100.

On the first day, the testimonies related to the socio-environmental impact of the mining activity itself, while the second day focused on Canadian policies contributing to the violation of human rights and environmental damage abroad.

“I think it’s very, very important that we have people’s mechanisms that take back justice […] to make sure that voices can be heard that are never going to be heard in traditional justice systems.”

Several Canadian mining companies were charged with large-scale, systematic violation of human rights along three axes: the right to life and to a healthy environment, the right to self-determination, and the right to full citizenship.

Nadja Palomo, a prosecuting lawyer for the case against Canadian mining companies, cited two instances of mining operations in Honduras and Chile by Canadian companies Goldcorp and Barrick Gold – meant to be representative of the industry – that have led to the contamination of water sources, limited access to water, and health problems for local communities. “[The] risks aren’t always immediately visible, but [mining activities] have disastrous, and often irreversible, consequences for the environment, as well as for the health and life even of generations to come,” Palomo told the audience in French.

Prosecutor Paul Cliche noted that mining activities often take place without the free, prior, and informed consent of the communities affected. He cited the case of a mining project in Guatemala, which began in spite of a legal challenge being in progress and of several municipal referenda showing overwhelming opposition to the project.

Lina Solano Ortiz, sociologist and founder of the Ecuadorian women’s organisation Frente de Mujeres Defensoras de la Pachamama, explained that mining operations negatively affect women, who are left to do unpaid caregiving.

“Often the men have to relocate, they move away from their families [and] their communities, and those who remain in charge of all the productive work are the women,” Solano Ortiz explained in Spanish in her testimony. “The moment a mining company arrives, there is contamination, there are health problems […] and [by caring for the sick children and the sick miners, the women] are doing work for free for the very same corporations that have made their families and themselves sick, and in this manner they are exploited by mining [industry] capital.”

Complicity of the Canadian state in violations

Maude Chalvin, founding member of the Projet Accompagnement Solidarité Colombie, and Pedro Landa, coordinator at the Centro Hondureño de Promoción al Desarrollo Comunitario, described the Canadian state’s interference with the legislative process in Colombia and Honduras.

In both countries, the Canadian International Development Agency has provided technical or financial support to the development of a new mining code that lessened restrictions on exploitation of mineral resources, according to the evidence provided by the prosecution. The legal changes have strengthened Canadian investment in both countries, to the extent that the Colombian auditor general used the term “Canadian colonization” in his 2013 report, according to Chalvin.

Stephen Brown, professor of political science at the University of Ottawa, condemned what he called the “re-commercialization of development aid.”

“For about a decade, we’ve been celebrating certain victories, such as the elimination of ‘tied aid,’ which means that Canadian aid is no longer tied to the purchase of goods and services from Canada,” Brown said in French in his testimony as an expert witness. “But it’s been reintroduced through the back door, and we now celebrate the benefits [of foreign development aid] for Canadians, and especially for Canadian private companies.”

One of his examples was a “corporate social responsibility” project put in place in Peru by Barrick Gold and funded by the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, which, Brown argued, aimed to gain the approval of the community for unpopular mining projects, and thus to benefit the Canadian extractive industry.

“It’s an inappropriate, nay, illegal, use of public development aid,” said Brown.

Moving forward

In the coming weeks, the jury will make concrete recommendations to the relevant companies, governments, and organizations. The final verdict will also be sent to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and to the United Nations.

“The testimonial evidence we’ve heard, I found that it was of a very high quality […],” juror Nicole Kerouac, a retired lawyer now doing pro-bono work on mining, told The Daily in French. “It gives an image of the behaviour of the Canadian mining companies in South America that can be quite accurate, I think, and I find that disturbing.”

The second hearing of the session on the Canadian mining industry will touch upon its effects within Canada, with particular focus on Indigenous communities, according to PPT co-spokesperson Daniel Cayley-Daoust. The session, the fortieth of the PPT since its inception in 1979, is expected to continue until 2016.

“[A process like the Tribunal is] extremely effective at documenting cases, at putting things together, and creating a broader analysis in a big-picture context,” Cayley-Daoust told The Daily. “As well, I think it’s useful for political pressure. A lot of these recommendations will be able to be used and referred to in the future, again by other groups [… the Tribunal will be impactful] if people take parts of this and use it in their own work.”

“I think it’s very, very important that we have people’s mechanisms that take back justice […] to make sure that voices can be heard that are never going to be heard in traditional justice systems,” added Small. “So I think the fact that this tribunal is not official according to the laws of Canada is actually what makes it so powerful and so effective, because it’s a way that people can take back the ‘just-ish’ system to really promote real justice.”

—With files from Jill Bachelder.

A document fully detailing the charges presented is available for download from the PPT’s website.