CALGARY — Canadian mining company Nevsun Resources is defending its operations in Eritrea following a damning report by the United Nations that accused the miner of using forced labour in the North African country.
Nevsun released an updated independent human rights report this week that found no evidence of forced labour or human rights violations at its 60-per-cent-owned Bisha mine in Eritrea, where thousands of people are fleeing on perilous treks to Europe.
The report by LKL International Consulting is in contrast to June's UN report, which said Nevsun used forced labour at the Bisha mine after the company was required to hire government-owned contractors that included Segen Construction.
The UN commissioners spoke with former Segen workers who said they were forced to work at the mine while in the compulsory national service.
"Even though Segen tried to conceal their status, the majority of Segen's 'workers' were in fact conscripts performing their national service," wrote the commissioners.
The UN report, which examined the overall human rights situation in Eritrea, found that "systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the government. Some of these violations may constitute crimes against humanity."
The grim conditions in Eritrea have spurred many to flee for Europe, with the International Organization for Migration saying more than 25,000 Eritreans have crossed the Mediterranean into Italy this year.
That represents by far the most from any single country on the route, which the IOM says is the deadliest entrance to Europe, with 2,267 deaths as of Aug. 25.
Todd Romaine, vice-president of corporate social responsibility at Nevsun, said in an email that the company's operations help Eritrea in its ongoing development. He added that Nevsun is optimistic that well-paying jobs like those in the mining sector can help stem migration.
Lloyd Lipsett, co-author of the Nevsun-commissioned report and principal of LKL, said in an interview that in his four trips to Eritrea, he has yet to see any outright repression or people being mistreated.
But he said his role has been to assess human rights conditions related to Nevsun's operations, and he has not specifically investigated allegations against the government, such as secret detentions or abuse in prisons.
The human rights lawyer said the UN allegations of forced labour dealt with the construction phase of the mine, while his assessments started after the mine was already operational in 2013.
"I've been able to validate what's been happening 2013 onwards, and I have seen absolutely no evidence of national service workers being used by the different Eritrean contractors," said Lipsett.
He said the people he interviewed denied the use of national service workers in the past, but he doesn't have enough certainty to make definitive conclusions himself.
Those accusations, however, are set to be tested in B.C.'s Supreme Court, where three Eritrean refugees are suing the company for allegedly being forced to work at the mine.
The lawsuit was launched last November but Dimitri Lascaris, one of lawyers pursuing the case, says Nevsun has since filed five motions challenging the jurisdiction and other aspects of the suit. Those motions, some of which Lascaris describes as "remarkable," are set to be heard next January.
Nevsun has denied the allegations, and says it will vigorously defend itself in court. The company has also questioned the methodology of the UN investigation while reaffirming its commitment to complying with international human rights standards.
The Nevsun lawsuit is one of the first test cases of Canadian mining companies being sued for operations abroad, along with separate cases against Tahoe Resources and HudBay Minerals related to Guatemala.
On Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Ecuadorian villagers have the right to use an Ontario court to seek billions in environmental damages from oil giant Chevron.
Lipsett said he has kept his distance from the Nevsun court case, but added that he considers the willingness of Canadian courts to take on such cases as a positive step.
"Hopefully the threat of a lawsuit will gather the attention of mining executives to invest in doing human rights due diligence at the front end, because if the Canadian courts are willing to hear cases here, that's serious stuff," he said.
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