Op-Ed: February 29, 2008

At home and abroad, Canadian companies should have the same human-rights and environmental standards

Our mining and oil and gas interests shouldn't act like a foreign fox in an overseas hen house


Special to Globe and Mail Update

February 29, 2008 at 12:21 AM EST

This weekend, mining ministers from around the world will meet in Toronto and corporate social responsibility will be on their agenda. Canada appeared to be poised for a major step forward by adopting clear human-rights and environmental rules for our mining, oil and gas companies overseas. Unfortunately, it now appears a historic agreement to regulate Canadian extractive companies overseas may collapse.

Canada is well-positioned to make a major impact in this area. More mining and oil and gas companies are listed on Canadian stock exchanges than anywhere in the world. In 2006, these sectors raised more than $20-billion in equity capital here.

The need for reform is clear. Canadian mining companies have been implicated in human-rights violations and environmental abuses ranging from death threats and assassinations in developing countries to toxic dumping and the destruction of protected areas. At home and abroad, human rights and environmental groups have challenged the Canadian government to take action against companies exploiting local populations and ecosystems overseas. Would Canadians, they say, tolerate the contamination of their town's water supply? Would they willingly relocate to make way for an open-pit mine? Would Canadians accept companies who aggressively use private security guards to suppress indigenous groups?

Most importantly, why should companies face one set of rules at home and weaker rules abroad? Other countries, such as the United States and Britain, expect that companies will be accountable to domestic rules when operating internationally. Why should Canada be an exception?

Why should Canada's extractives industry act like profit-driven foxes running the henhouse in countries desperate for foreign investment? That kind of behaviour would never be tolerated here. Why is it acceptable when Canadian companies act this way elsewhere?

In 2005, these complaints reached the House of Commons standing committee on foreign affairs and international trade. The committee called on the federal government to introduce tougher corporate accountability rules on human rights and the environment.

In response, the federal government initiated a series of "roundtables" involving international experts and the Canadian public to discuss the problem and propose solutions.

On March 30, 2007, at the conclusion of the process, business and human-rights groups released a joint report. The report fell short of what both sides wanted, but it represents an important compromise. It offers standards for Canadian companies overseas, and proposes new mechanisms to enforce them. The standards would be overseen by an impartial ombudsman and an oversight committee (with industry and civil-society representatives). Basically, Canadian companies should not be allowed to do abroad what they can no longer do at home.

In April, 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper commended the report at the G8 meetings in Heigeldamm, Germany. He boasted that its adoption would make Canada a "world leader" in corporate accountability standards.

There are growing concerns, however, that defeat may be snatched from the jaws of victory. There are fears the original report is being gutted after pressure from some heavy hitters in the mining industry. It is rare to see high-profile compromise between industry and civil-society groups on any issue. It would be a travesty if this hard-won accord was quashed by backroom pressure from influential lobbyists. We urge the federal government to support the original compromise reached in March of 2007 by industry and civil-society groups on rules for the overseas operations of Canadian mining and oil and gas companies.

Even industry lobbyists acknowledge that responsible companies run into trouble when rules aren't enforced, or clear guidelines and oversight procedures don't exist. It's time for Canadian mining and oil and gas companies to respect human rights and the environment. We owe it to the people and ecosystems of developing countries. And we owe it to Canadians, who expect better from those who carry our country's name abroad.

Ed Broadbent, a former leader of the federal New Democratic Party, was the founding president of Rights and Democracy. Alex Neve is secretary-general of Amnesty International, Canada.