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New human rights watchdog announced, but will it have teeth?

 Photo caption: Activists in Toronto protest the murder of 16 year old anti-mining organizer Topacio Reynoso Pacheco. She led youth in her community in opposing Canadian company Tahoe Resource's silver mine in Guatemala. Image: Allan Lissner

This week, François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of International Trade, announced the creation of a new human rights ombudsperson who will investigate allegations of abuse abroad concerning Canadian corporations. Champagne explained that the new watchdog, named the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE), will be empowered to independently investigate complaints of human rights abuse at the hands of Canadian companies, to make public recommendations for remedies, and to monitor the implementation of those recommendations.

The scope of the ombudsperson's potential recommendations is quite limited, and may include the withdrawal of political and financial support from the Canadian government as well as advising the government on policy and legislative changes needed to prevent future abuses. The Canadian government currently provides billions of dollars annually to Canadian and foreign companies to support their overseas operations. Based on the information currently available, the ombudsperson's recommendations will not be enforceable by CORE, and it will thus fall on government agencies and departments to decide whether and how to follow any recommendations. 

According to Wednesday's announcement, the ombudsperson will operate at arm's-length from government, will report to Parliament, and will have the power to compel documents and witnesses as part of any investigations. A multi-stakeholder body to advise the ombudsperson and the government will also be established, including representatives from the mining, oil and gas and apparel sectors, as well as human rights and labour advocacy organizations, and an Indigenous representative.

Ten years ago, I first began visiting communities in Central America who have experienced enormous violence at the hands of Canadian mining companies, including gang rapes, targeted assassinations, illegal land theft, militarizationcriminalization, and health impacts from poisoned land and waterways. This violence is not the result of a few bad apple companies, but is a problem endemic to the entire industry, an industry in which Canada is unquestionably the global leader. While robust and powerful movements at the site of nearly every large-scale Canadian mine are fighting back against the encroachment on their lives, lands, rights, and communities, these companies continue to operate with near complete impunity. Over the past decade, I have been involved in various ways in the struggle to address this lack of corporate accountability here in Canada regarding the operations of our mining companies overseas.

The creation of CORE comes as a direct result of over 10 years of advocacy from dozens of organizations, thousands of Canadians, and many supporters from around the world, including from the communities that have suffered the most. The Canadian Network for Corporate Accountability and the 34 organizations it comprises has done much of the heavy lifting over the past few years to make it abundantly clear to the federal government that they need to take action.

While I am heartened by Wednesday's announcement, I am also deeply concerned. The Canadian government has been the mining industry's biggest cheerleader and spokesperson for a long time, providing enormous diplomatic, financial, legal, and political support. The new ombudsperson will face enormous pressure from within the government to avoid antagonizing the industry's big players. And the mining industry is enormously powerful. Last time a bill came up for vote that presented potential consequences to the worst human rights offenders, the multi-billion-dollar Canadian mining lobby fought hard against it. That bill was ultimately defeated by six votes. The Canadian mining industry is also expert at professing impassioned dedication to corporate social responsibility and respect for human and environmental rights while blatantly doing the opposite.

Our government's most recent attempt to address the issue of mining injustice globally by appointing a corporate social responsibility counsellor for the Canadian mining industry was nothing short of a shamefulexpensive insult. Both the CSR Counsellor and the National Contact Point, a pre-existing mechanism, have been widely criticized for their general ineffectiveness and reliance on the voluntary participation of companies.

While the Trudeau government has launched this ombudsperson office, proclaiming lofty ideals "that Canada be second to none when it comes to business and human rights"  and assuring that the ombudsperson will have "all the tools and resources to ensure compliance" it would be naive to take this government on its word, seeing as it has broken promise after promise since Trudeau's election. 

As is so often the case, the devil will be in the details and it is the precise mechanism by which the ombudsperson functions that will determine whether it will represent real accountability to victims of Canadian mining. For that reason, it is critical that we recognize the potential this office represents to provide even a small step towards reducing corporate impunity, while simultaneously holding the government accountable to some important conditions that need to be met.

The Council of Canadians asserts that, to be effective, this ombudsperson must:

  • Operate independently, transparently, free from political interference and autonomously from the Minister of International Trade and from Global Affairs Canada, including in the administration of its operational budget.
  • Be empowered to conduct effective investigations, with the authority to summon witnesses and the tools needed to compel corporate disclosure.
  • Report publicly on investigation findings, including findings of wrongdoing, as well as recommendations for remedy. 
  • Make recommendations regarding remedy; harm prevention; corporate eligibility for government support; and policy and law reforms needed to prevent and address corporate wrongdoing that result in meaningful action and consequences.
  • Be well-resourced both financially and with the necessary expertise so as to be able to respond effectively and in a timely way to complaints.  
  • Engage in monitoring and follow-up.

If these conditions are not met, this office will not only be ineffective in supporting impacted communities, it will move our collective movement further away from the vision of true corporate accountability and justice for those who have been harmed. We must make it clear that our support for CORE is conditional and that we won't be fooled by new institutions that replicate the same patterns of corporate impunity.

And even if these conditions are met, it is clear that the struggle must continue. We need real justice for victims of violence. We need decision-makers in violent corporations to be held criminally accountable, in Canada and abroad. We need all communities to be assured free, prior and informed consent before new resource extraction projects go ahead. And we need Canada to no longer be the global leader for violent, coercive and destructive mining projects. Even in its most powerful and independent iteration, none of that is going to happen through this ombudsperson office. 

What it may represent however is one additional, albeit flawed, tool for corporate accountability, giving communities one new avenue to pursue redress for violence they have faced. Right now, the complete state of impunity within which Canadian corporations operate overseas is so dismal that having even one new tool would be an improvement.

Image: Allan Lissner

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