By Arthur Holbrook, PPP Board Member
Porgera Mine, Enga Province, Papua New Guinea. Image courtesy of: Catherine Coumans, MiningWatch Canada
Recently, the federal government announced the creation of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE). The ombudsperson “will be mandated to investigate allegations of human rights abuses linked to Canadian corporate activity abroad. The CORE will seek to assist wherever possible in collaboratively resolving disputes or conflicts between impacted communities and Canadian companies. It will be empowered to independently investigate, report, recommend remedy and monitor its implementation.” (Global Affairs Canada press release, Jan. 17, 2018) An initial focus of the ombudsperson will be extractive industries and the garment sector with additional sectors being added
after one year.
The new government initiative comes at least partly in response to events at the Porgera gold mine in Papua New Guinea. In May 2017 MiningWatch Canada brought two women who had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the mine’s security personnel to Ottawa to testify about the abuses suffered by local people living near the mine. The women met with a number of parliamentarians, civil servants and media. They also spoke at the annual general meeting of Barrick Gold, the Canadian company that owns the mine.
Catherine Coumans, Asia Pacific Coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, stated that Canada’s, “record of mining in Papua New Guinea is one of social and environmental degradation. It includes destruction of river habitats and fisheries and systemic failures to recognize and deal with human rights abuses. These abuses include the rape of local women by employees of Barrick Gold’s Porgera Mine. … This case highlights a pervasive problem faced by people living around the world who suffer abuses related to mining. It is well known that it is very difficult for poor, marginal and often illiterate people to access justice in many countries where Canadian mining companies operate. This case highlights that we also cannot rely on companies’ own remedy mechanisms to provide equitable compensation in such serious cases. It is high time for Canada to step into this remedy gap by creating an effective remedy mechanism in Canada.” (MiningWatch Canada, 9 May 2017)
Interviewed for this article (29 March 2018), Coumans said it was too soon to tell whether the appointment of an ombudsperson would be an effective tool. The exact mandate of the new ombudsperson has not yet been made public and the proposed budget for the office is less than MiningWatch hoped it would be. Coumans is waiting to learn more about the independence of the new office, specifically regarding its investigative powers with respect to compelling documents and witnesses, and its staffing. If the ombudsperson has an adequate budget and is mandated to operate independently, he/she can prove to be an effective tool. A notice of opportunity for the new position will soon be posted so Coumans expects the position will be filled by the end of the summer.
However, even if the ombudsperson is an effective force against human rights and environmental abuses by mining companies, it will have limited reach in areas of concern to PPP because its oversight will be limited to Canadian companies. For example, it will have little effect on some of PPP’s long-standing partners in Papua New Guinea. The Frieda gold and copper mine, in the headwaters of the Sepik River, is 90% owned by Chinese interests and 10% by Australian ones. The company’s plan to barge ore down the Sepik will bring the social and environmental threats of the mine to the doorstep of our friends and partners.
There are a number of gold and copper mines in PNG but ownership is mostly Australian, South African and, in the case of the Ok Tedi mine, the scene of a major environmental disaster, the government of PNG. PNG, after the British-Australian company BHP ended its ownership, is purportedly now using profits from the mine as part of a remediation program on the river systems affected by the release of mine waste.
Porgera Mine protest- 2017- Enga Province, Papua New Guinea. Photo courtesy of: Catherine Coumans, MiningWatch Canada
About 60 per cent of the world’s mining companies are based in Canada, making Canada the ideal place to pioneer ways to ensure mines respect local people’s rights when operating abroad, according to Julia Sanchez, President-CEO of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation. Pacific Peoples’ Partnership applauds the Canadian government’s initiative, and looks forward to monitoring how it will positively affect South Pacific nations and our partners there.