Canadian Mine Among Sites of Gross Human Rights Violations in Eritrea – UN Report

June 9, 2015 | By admin | Filed in: Nevsun ResourcesEritreaHuman RightsLabour.

A
new report
by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights
in Eritrea describes “a totalitarian state bent on controlling
Eritreans through a vast security apparatus that has penetrated
all levels of society.” Nevsun’s Bisha gold-copper mine is
repeatedly cited for appalling labour abuses by the company’s
Eritrean contractors, including forced labour and inhuman
living and working conditions.

The findings clearly echo the charges levelled against the
company last year in a lawsuit on behalf of former workers at
the site.

The range of alleged human rights allegations that the
commission investigated is extraordinary:

“The commission of inquiry was established by the UN Human
Rights Council in June 2014 to conduct an investigation of all
alleged violations of human rights in Eritrea, including:
extrajudicial killings; enforced disappearances; arbitrary
arrest and detention; torture and inhumane prison conditions;
violations of freedom of expression and opinion; freedom of
association and assembly; freedom of religion and belief;
freedom of movement; and forced military conscription.”

Unfortunately, the commission was able to corroborate these
violations in disturbing detail, through 550 interviews and 160
written submissions, despite fear of reprisals, even among
witnesses now in third countries.

“Many potential witnesses residing outside Eritrea were afraid
to testify, even on a confidential basis, because they assumed
they were still being clandestinely monitored by the
authorities and therefore feared for their safety and for
family members back in Eritrea.”

The UN report dedicates several pages to the Bisha mine,
including detailed testimony about conditions there, clearly
echoing the allegations brought against Nevsun in the Supreme
Court of British Columbia last November, that its contractors –
specifically Segen Construction, owned by Eritrea’s ruling
party – used forced labour, under abhorrent working and living
conditions. The suit
was filed
November 20, 2014 in British Columbia by law
firms Siskinds and Camp Fiorante Matthews Mogerman, Toronto
lawyer James Yap, and the Canadian Centre for International Justice
(CCIJ)
.

The commission’s report details how Segen, like other
government agencies, uses conscripts in Eritrea’s national
military service program as labour, under inhuman conditions
and for pitiful pay: “The commission concludes that forced
labour in this context is a practice similar to slavery in its
effects and, as such, is prohibited under international human
rights law.” (The sections of the full report starting at
paragraphs 1085, 1409, and 1435 deal specifically with the
Bisha mine, and include reports of beatings and torture.)

For its part, Nevsun has acknowledged that such abuses may have
taken place but denies that it had any knowledge of them, and
has commissioned what it calls a
human rights impact assessment
to show that its current
practices are within international norms, for example,
requiring workers to show a certificate of completion of
national service. At the same time, the UN report notes that
forged documents are common in Eritrea. Such safeguards, it
would seem, are barely worth the paper they’re printed on.

There is a much larger issue at stake here, of course. It has
nothing to do with how the company operates, but rather with
the simple fact that it is operating in Eritrea, in partnership
with the Eritrean government, and is providing an estimated
one-third of Eritrea’s foreign exchange earnings. That revenue
is going directly to support a regime that is most assuredly
using the money to repress its own citizens, buying weapons and
maintaining a brutally repressive and exploitive police and
military apparatus.

The UN report provide horrific detail of the repressive
measures used by the Eritrean government against its own
citizens, including imprisonment, torture, rape, and death.
Eritrea is ranked the most
heavily censored
country in the world, ahead of even North
Korea and one of the
most repressive
.

The UN commission of inquiry does not recommend sanctions as
such, but it clearly states that,

“In negotiating access to the country and in proposing
programmes and projects, organizations should ensure that a
positive impact on the enjoyment of rights and freedoms of the
people of Eritrea as recognized under international law is a
central priority.”

Nevsun maintains that it is helping Eritreans by providing
employment and income to several hundred people, and by
providing income to the government to improve services and
infrastructure more generally. It takes no responsibility for
improving the “enjoyment of rights and freedoms of the people
of Eritrea as recognized under international law,” and to the
contrary, have indicated that there are limits to the demands
it can make of the Eritrean government and still be allowed to
operate there.

The Canadian government doesn’t seem to care if corporations do
business in the most repressive countries in the world, and has
no legal mechanism to do anything about it even if it wanted
to, short of full scale sanctions under the Special
Economic Measures Act.
 It’s certainly aware there’s a
problem — the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign
Affairs and International Development’s Subcommittee on
International Human Rights has been holding hearings on
Nevsun’s operations since February, 2012.

At the same time, corporate management and shareholders alike
seem to be more concerned with self-justification and public
relations than in meeting the most basic requirements to
improve social conditions in the places they operate. These
are, after all, profitable operations; they are not only not
widely denounced, but actually supported by investors
(including the Canada Pension Plan). Eritrea may be a
worst-case scenario, but major elements of this equation are
present in many other parts of the world, from the Democratic
Republic of the Congo to the Philippines to Colombia, among
others.

The Canadian government – and a significant number of Canadian
companies – have no minimum legal or even ethical requirements
for some level of democratic governance, the rule of law, or
even just the humane treatment of citizens in the places they
do business. They aren’t even trying to come up with a credible
transition plan whereby they could do what the UN commission of
inquiry asks: ensure their projects have a positive – not a
negative – impact on people’s rights and freedoms. Apparently
it’s up to the most courageous escapees and dedicated Canadian
lawyers to seek some measure of justice, and, it is to be
hoped, have some cautionary effect on the industry as a whole.


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