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Mariano Abarca memorial
A memorial to Mariano Abarca is pictured in 2010. Dawn Paley photo via Flickr.

The Feds, Not Just Companies, Should Be Held to Account for Mining Harms Abroad

(This article was originally published as an op-ed in The Hill Times

A dominant player in the global mining industry, the Canadian government touts its economic diplomacy as a benefit companies can expect if they raise funds here.

A case before the Federal Court of Appeal this week shines a light on why we urgently need not only corporate accountability, but government accountability when it comes to Canadian mining operations abroad.

In 2009, Mexican environment defender Mariano Abarca was killed for denouncing environmental damage and social conflict caused by a Canadian mining company in his community of Chicomuselo, Chiapas. All those arrested for his murder were employed or contracted by Blackfire.

But Blackfire did not operate on its own. It faced many challenges to open its barite mine and found constant support from the Canadian Embassy in Mexico, as revealed in documents obtained through Access to Information. This, despite the embassy’s knowledge of its conflict with the community and related threats against community members.

Several months before he was killed, Mariano traveled to Mexico City, where he warned an embassy official that company associates were threatening him and others. A few weeks later, he was abducted off the street by plain clothes police and held for eight days. The embassy received 1,400 letters of concern for his whereabouts. The embassy’s response was to send a delegation to Chiapas to pressure state authorities to secure Blackfire’s operations and quell community protest. Six weeks later, Mariano was murdered.

Believing that the embassy had put Mariano’s life in greater danger, his family filed a complaint with the Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada (PSIC)—a body tasked with investigating allegations of misconduct by federal public sector employees. The commissioner refused to investigate, however, giving the alarming justification that government policies to do anything other than promote company interests are not “official.”

This decision is now at the appeal stage of a judicial review. A 2019 Federal Court decision acknowledged that Mariano might not have been murdered had the Canadian Embassy taken a different course of action—but sided with the commissioner in confirming that the only binding policy the embassy had to follow was to lobby on Blackfire’s behalf.

This decision sends the wrong message.

A dominant player in the global mining industry, the Canadian government touts its economic diplomacy as a benefit companies can expect if they raise funds here. As one top mining executive has said: “There’s a strong element of support from the Canadian government, and in our ability to wrap ourselves in the Canadian flag. We found that to be extremely effective as we operate abroad.”

While Canada continues to be a top investor in Mexico’s mining sector, the situation for human rights defenders has only worsened since Mariano was murdered. Global Witness named 2020 as the worst year on record for killings of environmental defenders, with Mexico ranking second worst in the world. But when mining-affected communities are being threatened, forcibly displaced, persecuted legally, and even murdered, they cannot rely on Canadian embassies for support. The Canadian government published guidelines for supporting human rights defenders, called “Voices at Risk” in 2016. We have seen little evidence of change since, and the decisions so far in Mariano’s case only reinforce the embassy’s one-sided approach.

In support of the Abarca family, human rights organizations, including Amnesty International Canada and Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights (CLAIHR), have made interventions, arguing that the integrity of Canada’s public service is at stake when the embassy exacerbates human rights abuses while promoting Canada’s economic interests. They argue that Canada’s international human rights obligations include the right to effective remedy and a duty to investigate allegations of harm such as through the PSIC.

Mariano’s case is unfortunately only one of many. A serious investigation into whether the Canadian Embassy in Mexico failed in its duty to protect him is a necessary first step in opening the door to greater accountability in Canada—not only for companies, but for the role the Canadian government plays in facilitating the global mining industry’s interests.

Jamie Kneen is a co-manager at MiningWatch Canada. MiningWatch is one of the applicants in the court proceedings.