News / Vancouver

Amnesty International lauds new rights watchdog for Canadian firms

Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise to scrutinize overseas activities long criticized over human rights and environmental abuses

Checkpoint due to the violent mining conflict in the region, involving Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources, in Mataquescuintla, Guatemala on May 2, 2013.

James Rodriguez / Torstar

Checkpoint due to the violent mining conflict in the region, involving Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources, in Mataquescuintla, Guatemala on May 2, 2013.

Human rights campaigners and Vancouver-based mining firms alike celebrated Wednesday after Ottawa announced a new, independent federal watchdog over Canadian companies operating abroad.

Non-government organizations have for years drawn attention to violence occuring near several Canadian firms' operations in other countries; incidents that sparked several ongoing lawsuits against mining companies headquartered in Vancouver.

"We are definitely a hub for the mining industry here in Vancouver," explained Fiona Koza, business and human rights campaigner with Amnesty International Canada in Vancouver, in a phone interview. "This announcement is really exciting because we've been pushing for this for about 10 years.

"It's really important because there are a lot of allegations against Canadian mining, oil and gas companies especially overseas."

Global Affairs Canada unveiled the creation of a new office that's "the first of its kind in the world" — the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) — "mandated to investigate allegations of human rights abuses linked to Canadian corporate activity abroad," a release stated, and "to assist wherever possible in collaboratively resolving disputes or conflicts between impacted communities and Canadian companies."

It wasn't just mining critics who praised the move, which had been promised in the Liberals' 2015 election platform. Some firms expressed hope the new position would bolster "best practices" in an industry that's been subject to boycott campaigns, protests and lawsuits.

"We applaud the government's announcement today to appoint a human rights ombudsperson to oversee Canadian mining and other industries abroad," said Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources CEO Ron Clayton in a statement Wednesday. "Independent oversight will strengthen best practices, ensure transparency within the mining industry and promote safe and responsible mining operations in Canada and abroad.

"Today's action is a positive step forward for the Canadian mining and extractive industry and we look forward to working with the new Ombudsperson."

Tahoe is one of those criticized by human rights campaigns over its silver mine in Guatemala, which was ordered to halt operations by the country's Supreme Court last year.

Guatemalan opponents of the project are challenging the project in Canadian court now too, one of the plaintiffs a man shot in the face and back by security guards outside the Escobal mine in 2013. The company later fired him, blaming confrontations near the mine as "largely perpetrated by a few bad local actors."

"Tahoe is committed to responsible and sustainable business practices," a company release said, "in all aspects of its mining operations in Canada and abroad."

Koza said many people in other countries have a "nearly impossible" time bringing such complaints to court — let alone finding justice — and more often than not they're dismissed. Transparency and recourse in such cases, she said, benefits everybody.

However, she hopes the new role also carries the power to order firms to disclose internal documents, something opposed by some offshore operators, she said.

"The Ombudsperson has more teeth — more power — (because) it's independent from the government, transparent, and will be able to issue recommendations … for broad policy reform or compensation.

"The really important thing is they can do site visits and conduct investigations to get to the bottom" of rights abuse allegations. She said her organization and others were hopeful after the long-sought position was promised two years ago, "but we didn't hear anything about it, so we weren't sure if they were going to follow through," Koza noted. "Then since October we've had a lot of negotiations" and meetings with Ottawa about the proposal.

"We will have to see once a case is brought forward how effective it is, but this is a world-first and sets a precedent we hope other countries will copy. It's a demonstration of global leadership in human rights."

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