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New court ruling considered victory for those impacted by Canadian mining operations abroad

Last Updated Mar 1, 2020 at 9:05 pm PDT


Court decides human rights complaints by Eritrean workers against Vancouver mining company can be heard in Canada

Three employees claim they were enslaved and subjected to cruel and degrading treatment at the mine in Eritrea

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — A Canadian organization that advocates for people who are impacted by Canadian mining operations say the tide is turning in favour of those people.

On Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled a lawsuit against Nevsun, a Vancouver-based company, can be heard in Canada.

Three refugees from Eritrea allege they were forced to work at a gold mine controlled by subsidiaries of Nevsun and Eritrean state companies.

The lawsuit claims labourers worked long days in harsh and dangerous conditions for years. Among the alleged means of ensuring obedience were punishments that included being ordered to roll in the hot sand while being beaten with sticks until losing consciousness. They contend construction of the mine flouted international legal provisions against forced labour, slavery and torture accusations that have not been tested in court.

“Nevsun is accused of essentially negligence of failing to prevent abuse at the mine site in Eritrea that it was operating in partnership with the Eritrean government. So the refugees were allegedly mistreated, forced to work and tortured, and they’re claiming that the company was aware of this, and the company did nothing to prevent it,” says Jamie Kneen with MiningWatch, an organization that intervened in the case.

Kneen believes it’s crucial the case is argued in a Canadian court.

“There’s a question of whether the victims have access to justice, and the problem is that in many places in the world, they don’t have access to justice at home. And that’s the core of this case. The idea that they could get a fair trial in Eritrea when they are refugees and their families have already been threatened and so on is just ridiculous,” he says.

Nevsun has denied that the company or its subsidiary enlisted the Eritrean military to build the mine or supply labour, and says the refugees behind the court action were not mistreated.

The Supreme Court of Canada rejected the argument that Canadian courts are precluded from assessing the sovereign acts of a foreign government, including Eritrea’s national service program, which allegedly supplied labourers to the mine.

As an advocate for people who are impacted by Canadian mining operations, Kneen says the decision means it is now possible for justice to be done.

“The problem is that Canada has no laws or restrictions on what Canadian companies can do internationally. So there’s no law in Canada that says that you’re not allowed to go into combat zones or areas with no government and do business there. And there’s nothing saying that you can’t go and participate in some fashion in any kind of environmental or human rights abuse. And so we’re looking at what people can do when that does happen. If we can’t stop it from happening first place, at least we can have some access to justice for people who have suffered some kind of abuse.”

The allegations stem from when the men worked at the Bisha mine between 2008 and 2010. The lawsuit was launched in 2014.

With files from the Canadian Press