Simon Child has never been to Africa, but that hasn't stopped the Grade 11 student at Semiahmoo secondary school from trying to improve the human-rights situation on the continent. Child, director of outreach and advocacy with the nonprofit Africa Canada Accountability Coalition, says one way to accomplish this is to force Canadian corporations to act more responsibly in Africa. In a phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Child said this is particularly true in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo where several Canadian mining companies operate.
Human-rights groups have tried to draw attention to massive human-rights violations of women in two eastern provinces of the DRC, where warring government and rebel forces have been involved in mass rape. Child pointed out that minerals from the DRC are key components of cellphones, iPods, and other electronic gadgets used by youths, and that the Congolese people will benefit if those resources are mined in the most ethical manner possible. “The first step to doing that is getting our government to make sure they're keeping an eye on these mining companies working in a place that has been called the rape capital of the world,” he said.
This is one reason why ACAC and other human-rights groups are strongly supporting Bill C-300, a private member's bill introduced by Liberal MP John McKay. The bill has passed second reading and is now being studied by the Commons foreign affairs and international development committee. If it becomes law, mining and oil-and-gas companies will be required to act in a manner that is consistent with international human-rights standards to qualify for assistance from Export Development Canada, which is a Crown corporation. In addition, the bill would prohibit the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board from investing in mining and oil-and-gas companies that don't respect human rights.
“Mining companies do not like having this reputation of being human-rights abusers,” Child said. “So if we get this bill, we can know who is doing good and who is doing bad. We could clear the air.”
Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International's Canadian office, told the Straight in a recent interview that governments and companies have long maintained that voluntary standards are the best way to deal with corporate human-rights violations in other countries. “We've always said that voluntary isn't enough,” he said.
Neve noted that in 2006, the federal government launched a consultation process involving industry officials, academics, and human-rights organizations to address corporate conduct abroad. He said that it produced a “remarkable consensus report”, which proposed several steps to enhance human rights. He said the groups waited two years for the government's response, which he described as a “profound disappointment”.
“We need to get some clear human-rights standards developed,” Neve added. “We need to have a meaningful complaint process that would oversee this, and we need to have some real sanctions to ensure that when companies are acting out and not complying with these human-rights standards, there are sanctions—whether that is losing certain forms of government financial assistance or other measures.”
Pierre Gratton, president and CEO of the Mining Association of B.C., told the Straight in a phone interview that his industry supports the creation of an ombudsman's office to review corporations' human-rights records. However, he said that an ombudsman should also have authority to investigate nongovernmental organizations. He added that the consensus report proposed an ombudsman's office to provide more discreet oversight than what McKay's bill calls for. “The ombuds' function was to provide a mechanism into looking into matters and attempting to provide solutions,” Gratton said, adding that punitive actions should only be considered as a last resort.