Practices by Canadian mining companies in other countries raise concerns

Thursday, February 22 2007

In a letter addressed to the federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, Most Reverend Roger Ébacher, Archbishop of Gatineau and Chairman of the Commission for Social Affairs, indicates the concerns of the Commission on practices by Canadian mining companies in other countries.

This intervention is part of a collaborative effort with the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace in support of the efforts by Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez, Archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, who has been calling on the Canadian government to provide better controls on Canadian companies in other countries, especially those involved in extracting operations.

Sent 12 February 2007

Hon. Mr. Peter G. MacKay
Minister of Foreign Affairs
Lester B. Pearson Building
Tower A, 10th Floor
125 Sussex Drive
Ottawa, ON
K1A 0G2

Dear Minister MacKay:

On behalf of the Social Affairs Commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, I write to congratulate you on the work your government has continued in the National Roundtables on Corporate Social Responsibility.  This process holds the promise of entrenching Canada’s effectiveness as a global leader in the promotion of democratic values, especially the inviolable dignity of the human person.

As the Roundtables move to a conclusion, it seems the fundamental question before us is whether Canadian resource extraction corporations should be governed by Canadian values and Canadian laws when operating overseas.

To find answers, we make our own the incisive and passionate call of His Eminence Cardinal Rodriguez of Honduras, in his letter to the participants in the National Roundtables.  A copy of this text is attached for ease of reference.

His Eminence affirms

We must move towards a vision of Corporate Social Responsibility, which cannot be reduced to corporate voluntarism alone but must be complemented by a social responsibility regulated by the state and national organizations.

It is, as you know, a foundational principle of international law that human rights are in no sense voluntary; the protection of human rights is in no sense optional.  The mandatory nature of human rights must continue to be a cornerstone of Canada’s presence in the world, and it must govern the actions of Canadian corporations worldwide, particularly those engaged in resource extraction.

At another place in the text, His Eminence affirms

We cannot continue with ambivalent policies where what we build with one hand, we destroy immediately with the other.  It is time to review market and trade rules and to complement them with values of solidarity, justice, subsidiarity, and shared responsibility in our actions and in the future of humanity.

Canada cannot be a leavening agent globally for democratization, for human rights and the rule of law while at the same time – through our tax policies and other public benefits, through our regulatory frameworks – supporting Canadian business practices that are complicit in the erosion of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

For this reason, we urge you, as recommended by the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade in June 2005, to

Put in place stronger incentives to encourage Canadian mining companies to conduct their activities outside Canada in a socially and environmentally responsible manner and in conformity with international human rights standards.  Measures in this area must include making Canadian government support – such as export and project financing and services offered by government missions abroad – conditional on companies meeting clearly defined corporate and social responsibility and human rights standards, particularly through the mechanism of human rights impact assessments[.]

This could include, for example, allowing tax benefits to accrue to the share holders of only those Canadian mining companies whose practices verifiably give full effect to Canada’s democratic values.  Tools like the consistent use of human rights impact assessments, complaints processes and reporting systems would also level the playing field.

Very often, proposals like these are criticized as unwarranted intrusions into the sovereignty of the host country.  Each state, this line of reasoning holds, should have the exclusive right to make deals with mining companies in its own way, disposing of its natural resources on its own terms.  This argument is deficient, because no state has the authority to abrogate human dignity.

Furthermore, for example, according to a study conducted by John G. Ruggie, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, in the 27 countries where he gathered allegations of violations of human rights by companies, 25 of the host countries had low governance and high corruption indicators.
This leads Mr. Ruggie to conclude, with regard to the argument of sovereignty

[…] there is little in international law that prohibits home states from exercising greater oversight, through, for example, parent company-based requirements for human rights impact assessments and reporting systems, especially if public funds are used to promote the overseas investment.

It is clear, from the standpoint of Catholic Social Doctrine, that sound economics cannot be separated from the demands of justice.  To be clear, social justice should be an enabling feature of economic activity, allowing it to flourish and provide the goods necessary for the service of our God-given human dignity.  “The economy,” the Church teaches

has as its object the development of wealth and its progressive increase, not only in quantity but also in quality; this is morally correct if it is directed to man’s overall development in solidarity and to that of the society in which people live and work.

We have a shared responsibility to ensure that Canada prospers both in the quantity and quality of our economic activity.  This is not a zero sum equation.

With the assurance of my prayers for every grace in the New Year,

[Endorsed text in French.]

Roger Ébacher
Archbishop of Gatineau


cc. His Eminence Oscar Andres, Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga, S.D.B.
Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Tegucigalpa, Honduras