Closing the accountability gap on business and human rights

On January 17th, the federal government unveiled a long-awaited policy reform.


Courtesy of KAIROS Canada.

The Honourable François-Philippe Champagne—Minister of International Trade—announced that Canada will be establishing an independent human rights Ombudsperson to address allegations of abuse by Canadian corporations operating overseas.

For well over a year, rumours have swirled around Ottawa that this announcement was “imminent.” But it wasn’t until two weeks ago that more than a decade of advocacy by civil society groups finally bore fruit.

As an organization that has witnessed the negative impacts of Canadian mining overseas and has heard repeated calls from partners for mechanisms for redress, we at MCC are grateful for this new policy direction.

Called the “Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise,” this position will put the Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility Counsellor (set up in 2009) out of commission. The Ombudsperson will, at least initially, continue to focus on mining, oil, and gas companies, while also adding the garment industry to the mix.

I doubt that many will be sad to see the CSR Counsellor’s office go. With no political independence (the Trade Minister is, after all, its boss) and no mandate to investigate complaints, make binding recommendations, or require companies to participate in proceedings, this position has been hamstrung by inherent flaws and limitations from the get-go.

Indeed, the CSR Counsellor was, from day one, an inadequate response to long-awaited calls for action.

Dating back to the 2007 National CSR Roundtables, experts from multiple sectors (including industry) have been advising the government to establish an independent human rights Ombudsperson “with teeth” (something other than the voluntary, non-binding, market-based CSR incentives the government usually prefers). Ever since those roundtables, civil society groups have been working hard to keep this “ask” alive-and-kicking on the political agenda.

In recent years, the Open for Justice Campaign—an initiative of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability and MCC partners like KAIROS and the Canadian Council for International Cooperation—has rallied Canadians to push for the establishment of an Ombudsperson as well as for legislated access to Canadian courts (the latter of which also has gained steam thanks to several civil cases winding their way through court on our own soil).

Now, this decade of sustained advocacy finally has paid off.

Touted as the “first of its kind in the world” and part of the government’s “progressive trade agenda,” the newly-announced human rights Ombudsperson—and its promised multi-stakeholder Advisory Body—will provide a fresh start for Canada to take leadership for responsible business conduct abroad.

Last week, MCC joined the voices of Canadian civil society in welcoming the Ombudsperson announcement in a letter to the Trade Minister. “If properly implemented,” the letter says, “this position will help hold Canadian companies accountable for human rights violations overseas, provide remedy for victims of abuse, and prevent future harm for local communities.”

If properly implemented…

Herein lies the crux of the matter.

As the government now begins the work of building the office and hiring its very first Ombudsperson, key questions still need to be firmly answered.

Will the office…

…be fully independent from business and government at all stages of the process?

…be properly funded and staffed, so as to undertake complex investigations?

…be entirely transparent, making its progress, findings, and final recommendations for remedy publicly available?

…be able to monitor progress on recommendations and settlement agreements?

and, most importantly…

…have the authority to summon witnesses and compel disclosure of corporate documents?

The Government of Canada has the opportunity to take a real, global leadership role here. And civil society partners like KAIROS are “cautiously optimistic.”

But the credibility of the office hinges on its implementation.

Lend your voice (with our easy email tool!) in thanking the Canadian government and expressing your support for an effective and fully independent Ombudsperson with strong investigative powers!

By Jenn Wiebe, MCC Ottawa Office director

***Check out CNCA’s great infographic on criteria for an effective Ombudsperson


A new era of accountability in Canadian mining, or business as usual?

Change often comes slowly, if at all. At least that’s what we’re told, especially when it involves the impact of advocacy on government policies and practices.

Ken Battle, President of the Caledon Institute of Social Policy, coined the term “relentless incrementalism” to describe the often slow-moving nature of advocacy. Advocacy is often a laborious task requiring endless patience, as we often see only little droplets of change at a time.

But what happens when it is clear that a government has no intention of moving forward on particular legislation or actions that would bring about change?

This appears to be the case when it comes to enacting tougher accountability laws and standards for Canadian companies operating at home and abroad—something civil society advocates have long been calling for.

Marlin Mine

Goldcorp’s Marlin Mine, San Marcos, Guatemala. Photo by Anna Vogt

In terms of global business, Canada is, by a wide margin, home to the majority (75%) of the world’s mining companies. In Latin America, specifically, in the last 10-15 years the proportion of Canadian companies active in exploration and extraction has increased significantly. According to MCC coalition partner the Canadian Council for International Cooperation (CCIC), in the five years between 2002-2007, the proportion of Canadian mining companies operating in the region jumped from 30 to 50 percent. Within certain countries, these numbers are up to 70 percent. Over 500 Canadian companies are active within Latin America, with investments of over $40 billion.

In many of the contexts in which Canadian companies operate, mining activities play a role in fueling violence and exacerbating tensions, damaging the environment, negatively impacting health, and causing community displacement.

In many mining-heavy contexts such as Peru, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, countless communities, civil society groups, and human rights defenders have also been threatened or targeted for speaking out against mining projects, particularly when the government has a vested interest in the profits.


Citizens of Bucaramanga, Colombia defend their water supply from a Canadian-owned gold-mining project, 2013. Photo courtesy Pastor Virviescas Gómez / CBC.

Further, in many countries legal and illegal armed groups have a stake in the mining industry, either because they offer direct security services to mining companies or because they profit from the trafficking of natural resources. There have been many notable instances—Hudbay Minerals’ abuses in Guatemala, for example—in which the local security forces hired to protect mining projects are accused of carrying out violence and human rights abuses against nearby communities. When it comes to trafficking, in a context such as Colombia there have been reports that some illegal armed groups have abandoned the production and trafficking of illicit crops as a means to fund their operations in favour of controlling mining projects instead.

Companies fall under the laws and regulations of the countries in which they operate. Proponents of tougher corporate social responsibility, however, point to the weaker legal frameworks of host governments when it comes to things like environmental protection, working conditions, and transparency of financial reporting. And, even when the laws exist on paper, the lack of robust enforcement and broken judicial systems make them virtually meaningless.

Most of what the Canadian government has put in place when it comes to corporate social responsibility standards has been voluntary in nature and ineffective for holding companies accountable.

For instance, the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Counsellor, a position established in 2009 under the previous government to assess and mediate complaints about Canadian companies committing abuses abroad, has been widely criticized as having a mandate with little-to-no power. In addition to the process being entirely voluntary for companies, the counsellor has no civil or criminal powers of enforcement, nor can he/she impose remedy or issue sanctions against a company.

Reportedly, this mandate apparently will remain unchanged under the new Liberal government, despite earlier promises to the contrary.

In light of these realities, many civil society organizations such as Development and Peace, Mining Watch Canada, KAIROS, and Publish What You Pay are calling for a more robust system of corporate social responsibility in Canada.

open-for-justice-logo-temp-TRANS.PSDOne campaign, named “Open for Justice,” calls for a number of changes to Canada’s framework. This includes an independent ombudsman with the power to monitor, investigate and impose economic and legal sanctions on Canadian mining companies that violate clearly-established environmental or human rights standards. The campaign also demands that Canadian courts be open to hearing and processing complaints from communities where Canadian mining companies are accused of abuses and local judicial systems are broken.

During the fall election campaign, the Liberals promised to establish such an independent ombudsman. This is apparently no longer the case. Will they consider reassessing Canada’s CSR strategy overall to ensure better accountability for the extractives sector?

If Canada’s CSR standards remain unchanged, one has to wonder what kind of impact mining operations will continue to have in Latin America and around the world.

Do we dare to expect, or even hope to see, change on the horizon when it comes to the actions and consequences of Canadian mining operations abroad? Given how important the extractives industry is to Canada, how will values of justice, human rights, and sustainable development play against economic gain?

By Bekah Sears, MCC Ottawa Office Policy Analyst

“Open for justice” and not only “open for business”

Guest writer for this reflection is Ian Thomson, Resources and Rights Partnerships Coordinator, for KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives. Mennonite Central Committee is a member of KAIROS.

Today, on May 14, supporters of the “Open for Justice” campaign will be rallying on Parliament Hill to call for the creation of an Ombudman to investigate complaints related to the international operations of Canadian extractive sector companies. Over 80,000 Canadians have signed postcards or written to their MPs to support the campaign. During the rally, MPs will receive these messages from their constituents, which have been gathered through the grassroots networks of KAIROS Canada, Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the United Steelworkers, Inter Pares and Amnesty International Canada.

open-for-justice-logo-temp-TRANS.PSDCanada is home to more than 60 percent of the world’s mining and exploration companies. Canada is uniquely positioned to raise industry practices in the mining sector. At KAIROS, we are repeatedly reminded by our partners in the global South that Canadian mining companies are operating in over 100 countries and face little or no requirements under Canadian law to respect human rights or the environment in their international operations.

The timing for this campaign couldn’t be better. Corporate accountability is gaining momentum in Canada, despite the federal government’s reluctance to show leadership. Last year, an Ontario court ruled that three civil lawsuits concerning alleged human rights abuses at a Canadian mine in Guatemala will proceed to trial. Last October the government’s Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Counsellor resigned prematurely, and the position remains vacant to this day. In both instances, the status quo is no longer an option. Companies are learning that Canadian courts are willing to exercise jurisdiction in cases where companies are complicit in serious harms abroad. And the ongoing controversies faced by mining, oil and gas companies abroad is evidence of the need for a stronger Ombudsman office to investigate complaints and recommend appropriate remedial action.

In 2009, the federal government adopted a CSR Strategy for the Canadian extractive sector operating internationally, but the four pillars of the strategy have been largely a dismal failure.

  • The CSR Counsellor appointed to resolve disputes in the extractive sector has failed to resolve any of the six cases brought before the office. In fact, in three of the six cases, companies involved simply walked away and thereby terminated the review process.
  • A CSR Centre for Excellence has virtually ground to a halt.
  • The voluntary standards endorsed by the government have been adopted by few junior mining companies.
  • And the controversial partnerships between mining companies and NGOs, funded with Canada’s official development assistance funds, have generated much criticism from academics and development practitioners alike.
A group of Ontario young people stand on the edge of the Marlin Mine in San Marcos, Guatemala. The mine is owned by Goldcorp of Vancouver BC.

A group of Ontario young people stand on the edge of the Marlin Mine in San Marcos, Guatemala. The mine is owned by Goldcorp of Vancouver BC.

As the global hub for the mining sector, Canada can do more to ensure that resource extraction projects are developed responsibly and that mining companies are held accountable when people are harmed. Canadian churches are hearing more and more accounts from our church counterparts and other partners in developing countries about the impact of mining companies on the land and on communities. Communities and workers want to know if Canada will be open for justice when people are denied justice in their own countries.

Please take action today to make the mining industry more accountable:

Centre for excellence?

ImageLast fall MCC Canada wrapped up our Mining Justice Campaign. Last month I resigned from the Executive Committee of the Centre for Excellence in CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility). These two actions were not related.

It’s true that MCC will not be able to devote as much attention to mining issues as we have over the past three years. However, given the global impact of Canadian mining companies—and the priority the Government of Canada has given this sector in its approach to foreign policy—our work for mining justice will continue.

The Centre for Excellence in CSR would seem to be a valuable tool for this work. Hosted by the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM), the Centre aims to offer a forum where the extractive industry, government, and civil society can obtain timely access to high-quality CSR information and, in so doing, raise the bar for excellence in CSR-related practices.

Why then am I leaving it behind? As noted in a public statement released by a network of civil society organizations on February 14:

For the past three years several member organizations of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA) have participated in the Executive Committee of the Centre for Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). These organizations were the United Steelworkers, MiningWatch Canada, Mennonite Central Committee Canada, KAIROS: Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives and Amnesty International Canada.

In the last few weeks each of those organizations has ended their participation in the Centre. The Government of Canada’s termination of funding for the Centre at the end of March 2012 was a major factor in the decision of each organization to leave.

The Centre for Excellence was established as part of the Government of Canada’s “Building the Canadian Advantage” CSR strategy launched in 2009. Despite serious concerns about that strategy, several members of civil society decided to participate in the Centre for Excellence because we believed that the multi-stakeholder dialogue space might provide an important opportunity to move forward the debate on human rights and business in the extractive sector and to improve the practise of Canadian extractive companies.

The CNCA members previously involved in the Centre for Excellence remain committed to multi-stakeholder dialogue, and are receptive to other avenues that may provide for a more solid platform than that offered by the unfunded Centre for Excellence.

In short, this particular Centre for Excellence has failed to live up to its promise. Given that the mandate of the Ottawa Office is to relate to the federal government, our participation doesn’t make much sense if the government is not at the table in a meaningful way.

IMG_0410This is not to diminish the significance of opportunities to engage with mining industry representatives. And it is not to diminish the good intentions of government observers from the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, Canadian International Development Agency, and Natural Resources Canada. Indeed, I wish those intending to continue with this effort well.

I should also be clear that I find this outcome quite disappointing on a personal level. After all, I didn’t attend a dozen Executive Committee meetings and help plan a couple of workshops over the past few years for no reason.

I remain convinced that real progress can be made when the concerns of all stakeholders are considered.

I remain convinced that we should welcome opportunities to talk with the people we disagree with.

And I earnestly hope that the communities MCC and our coalition partners work with will one day associate the word “excellence” with Canadian mining companies. But that will require a long term commitment, not just a name.

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director