As Canada criticises Zimbabwe over diamonds, how exemplary are its mining investments?

Jun 26, 2011

Canada has been in the forefront of efforts to stop the exports of diamonds from Zimbabwe's Marange diamond fields. As an important member of the Kimberley Process and a country with an overall 'clean' international image, Canada's concerns over government human rights abuses at Marange and the marginalisation of the local communities have some weight. But it turns out that Canada has some human rights-in-mining issues of its own to worry about.

In the Kimberley Process Canada has sided with the US, UK and other Western countries to oppose the lifting of the ban on Zimbabwe selling its Marange diamonds freely on the global market, and against the African and other countries that are on Zimbabwe's side. Last week when the DRCongolese current chairman of the KP announced (for the second time this year) that the ban on Marange diamonds had been lifted, the Western  members made it clear that they did not agree, throwing the KP's requirement of a consensus position on important issues into disarray.

Canada's minister of foreign affairs issued (June 26 2011) by issuing a statement:

"Contrary to the Chair's Notice, key concerns were not addressed and Canada, and like-minded states, did not endorse the proposal submitted by the Chair. The notice was issued in contravention of rules and procedures of the Kimberley Process. We are advising the Canadian diamond industry against trade in Marange diamonds."

"In light of the Zimbabwean military's brutal crackdown on miners in December 2008, Canada continues to call for supervised exports from two Marange mines and a credible monitoring arrangement. Without these systems in place, Canada refuses to go along with the plan to certify Zimbabwe's diamonds.

"All diamond-producing countries stand to lose if the Kimberley Process is rendered ineffective. Canada will continue to work to address the fundamental weaknesses of the Kimberley Process and find a credible solution that is satisfactory to all stakeholders."

"Marange diamonds should benefit the people of Zimbabwe. One important step toward this goal is to ensure that the diamonds are properly and credibly certified through a strong Kimberley Process."

Strong stuff from Canada!

Canadian civil society groups have been vocal in their support of their counterparts in Zimbabwe who are working to halt government abuses at Marange, and to try to ensure that the local people get a share of the bounty from the recently discovered precious stones in their area.

But in an article headed 'Bringing Canadian mining to justice' (, Karyn Keenan writes that there are also human rights questions surrounding Canadian mining companies' growing presence in Africa.

She writes, "As with other mining regions, Africa is rife with complaints concerning human rights abuse and environmental destruction associated with these investments. Most recently, five people were fatally shot at Barrick Gold’s North Mara mine in Tanzania and allegations have surfaced regarding sexual abuse at this operation. Barrick reports finding ‘credible evidence’ that its security guards and Tanzanian police sexually assaulted local women."

Says Keenan,"Canadian mining companies seem to enjoy impunity virtually everywhere that they operate overseas. Many governments are unable or unwilling to effectively regulate transnational corporations, and judicial institutions are often compromised by myriad issues."

She then goes on to catalog some of the ways aggrieved foreign parties have brought complaints to Canada's judicial system against some of the country's mining companies, believing they stand a better chance of justice rather than under their own countries' legal systems.

What is different of course, is that in the case of Marange it is the country's own government that is accused of killings and other abuses, whereas in the examples Keenan cites it is private Canadian mining investments overseas. And there is the presumption that when even foreign complainants seek relief against Canadian companies in Canadian courts, there is a good chance of them getting justice and of the verdict being implementable and respected. One unfortunately cannot say the same in Zimbabwe about local communities who attempt to fight what they feel is their government's siding with local and/or foreign diamond smuggling syndicates against their interests.

Keenan's article is a reminder that the high-stakes business of mining is a murky one, and that it would not be difficult for 'accused' governments like Zimbabwe's to do some finger-pointing of their own against their accusers.

The global commonality of complaints by local communities of abuse by mining companies illustrates even more the need for regulation and monitoring of what goes on at Marange, though it doesn't take away the Marange-specific issues of who should do what between the KP and the 'sovereign' but accused-of human rights abuses-government of Zimbabwe.  

A Canadian mining company is also currently in a bit of political trouble in Peru. The central government awarded Bear Creek Mining Corporation a silver mining concession in a remote area of the country in 2007, but local communities are up in arms about they ''fear that mines pollute area waterways and leave few local benefits,'' according to a news agency report. Violent protests have broken out, forcing the government to cancel the mining license.

The company has in turn protested the cancellation, saying it ''illegal and without basis'' since the company believes it has done everything according to Peruvian law.

To which the people of Marange might reply that just because something has been made 'legal' by the government doesn't necessarily mean that it is right and in their interests.

If the Peruvians appeal to the world silver mining equivalent of the Kimberley Process for a global 'ban' to be placed on silver mined in their communities because of pollution or lack of benefits for them, I doubt that the Canadian government would support that ban as it is doing with the Marange diamonds.

The government of Zimbabwe does not have a good record of respecting its citizens, and the reports of informal miners having been shot from helicopters by army troops are horrific. It is therefore not at all far-fetched for Zimbabwean and foreign civil society groups to be concerned about the situation around the Marange mines. The issues the Canadian foreign ministry has highlighted in its communique about last week's Kimberley Process meeting are legitimate.

But as the examples of the complicated issues in connection with the overseas mining investments of Canadian companies show, mining in general is not the kind of enterprise in which too many countries can take a self-righteous attitude.   


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