VANCOUVER (miningweekly.com) – Canada’s Liberal government has introduced a new federally mandated Ombudsman for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) to investigate human rights complaints about the overseas operations of Canadian companies.
The watchdog will investigate complaints and, if warranted, will make recommendations to remedy any business ethics infractions found.
Canada’s International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne announced the creation of the position after years of campaigns for an ethics watchdog. He will also establish an advisory body to advise the government and CORE on responsible business conduct abroad.
“Canada’s leadership in strengthening responsible business conduct abroad reflects the values supported by Canada’s progressive trade agenda where all parties should benefit from economic development, and contributes to Canada’s reputation as an international business partner of choice,” Champagne said in an announcement.
The ombudsman’s recommendations could include the withdrawal of Canadian government political support (such as Trade Councillor support) and financial support (such as funding or political risk insurance from Export Development Canada), as well as advice to Canada's government on policy and legislative changes needed to prevent unethical behaviours before they occur.
The ombudsman will operate at arms-length from government. He/she will report to Parliament, and will have the power to compel documents and witnesses.
“Progressive trade only succeeds when it works for everyone, including those most directly affected and least able to defend themselves. Building on Canada’s existing expertise and leadership in corporate social responsibility, these measures will be ‘best in class’, reinforcing Canada’s approach to inclusive economic growth, and helping keep Canadian companies at the forefront of responsible business conduct abroad – a competitive advantage in today’s marketplace.
The announcement is seen as the start of a new era of cooperation between government, business and nongovernmental organisations to ensure greater respect for human rights.
The Canadian mining industry, activists and nongovernmental organisations welcomed the news, hailing the announcement as a victory after years of lobbying government to reinforce existing mechanisms to hold Canadian companies operating overseas accountable for their actions.
“It’s essential that our mines and businesses are operating in a way that is respectful of human rights. That does not only apply to mining, but to all businesses, and what we’ve advocated for this ombudsman to apply to our business,” Mining Association of Canada (MAC) VP for sustainable development Ben Chalmers told Mining Weekly Online.
In the announcement, Minister Champagne indicated that not only will CORE’s mandate apply to mining, oil and gas and textiles, but also, within a year, it will apply to all Canadian businesses. “That is an important signal to send, saying that Canadian businesses are expected to operate in a way that respects human rights, and that’s something we support,” he states.
Chalmers explains that the office will be another tool that the Canadian government now has at its disposal to enforce good business practice.
This also dovetails with the MAC’s efforts to promote its Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) initiative in other jurisdictions. To date, mining associations in Finland, Argentina, Botswana and the Philippines have also adopted versions of the TSM principles and Chalmers says it is working with several more jurisdictions to sign on to the programme, which is built around ethical best business practices.
“Our hope is that this will position Canadian business as leaders in human rights and one of our ideal objectives for this office is to play a meaningful role to bring communities and companies together where there is a dispute and help them resolve it in a way that helps both parties move forward constructively,” Chalmers says.
Canadian precious metals company Tahoe Resources in a separate statement welcomed the creation of CORE.
"We applaud the government's announcement today to appoint a human rights ombudsperson to oversee Canadian mining and other industries abroad. 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 president and CEO Ron Clayton says in a statement.
Tahoe stressed its commitment to responsible and sustainable business practices in all aspects of its mining operations in Canada and abroad and its adherance to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.
Tahoe’s Escobal mine, in Guatemala, is central to a lawsuit brought by seven Guatemalan protesters, which the Court of Appeal for British Columbia in January last year ruled can be heard in the British Columbia court system. The Guatemalan protesters allege that Tahoe security guards shot at them during a protest outside the Escobal mine in 2013, and are suing the company for negligence and battery. Tahoe in March last year appealed the ruling.
NGO MiningWatch Canada welcomed the announcement, saying its efforts since 2005 have finally paid off after years of campaigning for stricter mechanisms to hold Canadian mining companies accountable for their actions abroad.
“We have pushed hard for an ombudsperson that will have robust powers to independently investigate complaints brought by people who have suffered human rights abuses as a result of the operations of Canadian mining companies abroad,” spokesperson Catherine Coumans says.
MiningWatch has also called for a high level of transparency.
POOR TRACK RECORD
The new CORE is expected to have more teeth than Canada’s Office of the Extractive Sector Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) counsellor.
The CSR counsellor had come under fire from NGOs that argue that the office was ineffective, a waste of tax money, and should be axed in favour of creating an ombudsman with broader powers.
The office was created in 2009 by the Conservative government of the day in response to growing public pressure to make Canadian mining and extractive sector companies accountable for serious and extensive human rights abuses associated with their international operations.
In October 2013, CSR counsellor Marketa Evans quietly walked away from the job, leaving the office without a counsellor for 16 months. In 2014 alone, the inactive and counsellor-less office cost Canadian taxpayers C$181 600, according to industry watchdog MiningWatch Canada.
In March 2015, Stephen Harper's Conservative government appointed mining professor and former mining executive Jeffrey Davidson the new CSR counsellor. According to MiningWatch, the office of the CSR had not managed to mediate a single resolution in any of the six cases brought before it since its creation.