by Carole Samdup
First published in Embassy News
Over the past several years, there has been considerable debate about the activities of Canadian mining companies and their effect on human rights in countries around the world. In fact, the Canadian government is currently reviewing its Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy for the International Extractive Sector and just a couple weeks ago Parliament debated the so-called sunshine bill on financial transparency for mining, oil and gas companies.
With at least 75 per cent of the world’s mining companies based here in Canada, it is fitting that our government assume a leadership role in efforts to better protect human rights in the places where our companies operate.
Unfortunately, however, even the best policy and regulatory frameworks will not be enough to avoid the myriad challenges confronted by people affected by conflict and systemic human rights abuse perpetrated by their own government. Nowhere is this truer than in present-day Tibet where mining is not a development opportunity—it is a resource grab that marginalizes communities and threatens the fragile environment. In such a context, the introduction of “no-go zones” for Canadian investment could provide a brief respite.
Let’s imagine for a moment that Canada is the world leader in promoting human rights in the extractives industry. Let’s imagine that not only does Canada publicly endorse important international standards such as the OECD Guidelines or the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, but that it also requires Canadian companies to respect those standards. Let’s imagine that when Canadian companies are implicated in or are complicit in violations of human rights in other countries, our government demands appropriate responses from those companies. Let’s imagine that when those companies fail to make necessary changes to protect human rights, our government’s financial and diplomatic support is suspended until the changes are made. Let’s imagine that if a Canadian company knowingly continues to abuse human rights, victims are able and encouraged to seek remedies through judicial or non-judicial processes here in Canada.
Even if such an idealist (but not impossible to achieve) scenario were actually real today, it would still be impossible for Canadian companies to respect and protect human rights when conducting business inside present-day Tibet. A recent “request for review” submitted by the Canada Tibet Committee to Canada’s National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises offers some insight as to why this is true.
First, Tibetans do not participate in the policy decisions affecting their communities. It is not possible to convene open consultations about new projects or their potential effects, free of government interference and control. Any public conversation about human rights, organized by an investor as part of a standard due-diligence package, could be considered as “interference in internal affairs” by state authorities, perhaps threatening promised licensing agreements. In the absence of a credible stakeholder engagement process, there is no way to obtain informed consent.
Second, access to information in Tibet is highly problematic. State records are opaque at best and a prevailing climate of fear in Tibetan areas discourages potential witnesses from documenting or reporting human rights violations. Tibetans living in communities affected by Canadian mining cannot freely express dissent. They cannot send information outside of Tibet via the Internet without risking arrest. They certainly cannot travel to foreign countries such as Canada to offer testimony or share their personal experiences. Any of these acts would result in reprisals not by the company, but by the state itself.
Finally, the days of Western governments influencing China’s human rights behaviour are clearly over. In 2014 the lure of China’s market overrides all other concerns and it is increasingly difficult to engage Canadian companies in a discussion about human rights in Tibet. Even British Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to retract his public support for Tibet after Chinese leaders gave him the cold shoulder. Moreover, a growing percentage of Canadian extractive companies currently in Tibet are closely affiliated to Chinese state-owned companies and have no practical scope or desire to confront government policy or to promote a Canadian CSR strategy. The largest shareholder of Vancouver-based China Gold International Resources, for example, is the state-owned enterprise China National Gold.
In essence, even if Canada were to adopt the world’s best CSR strategy, it would not have any effect in Tibet. For CSR strategies to work, an enabling environment in the host country is required. In its absence, a no-go zone designation is the logical response in order to avoid complicity with the legacy of current and past abuse. A no-go zone designation would impose a moratorium on the provision of diplomatic and trade services, credit and loan insurance, and other benefits (including potentially, those provided by bilateral investment treaties).
In the work of defending human rights in Tibet, we are often told not to expect much in the way of government support. China is too big and Tibet is not sufficiently strategic to Canada’s interests to merit confrontation with the economic powerhouse. And yet, no less than 125 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009 in a stirring appeal for help from the international community. If it is not possible to proactively promote human rights via the application of a CSR strategy, at the very least Canada should adopt a do-no-harm policy and take the appropriate steps to discourage Canadian mining investment in Tibet until a happier time in its history.
Carole Samdup is the executive director of the Canada Tibet Committee. It promotes human rights and democratic freedom in Tibet. The CTC’s submission to the National Contact Point is found here.