MPs told of gang rapes at mine; Toronto-based company hotly denies crime at South Pacific site

Date of publication: 
24 November 2009

A usually sedate parliamentary hearing room was jolted with stories of alleged gang rape as MPs heard testimony about the operation of a Canadian- controlled gold mine in the South Pacific.

“Numerous accounts of rapes show a similar pattern,” testified lawyer Sarah Knuckey, who was recounting information gathered at the Porgera Joint Venture (PJV) mine in Papua New Guinea, partly owned by Toronto-based Barrick Gold Corp.

“The guards, usually in a group of five or more, find a woman while they are patrolling on or near mine property. They take turns threatening, beating and raping her.

“In a number of cases, women reported to me being forced to chew and swallow condoms used by guards during the rape,” Knuckey continued.

A lawyer at the centre for human rights at New York University School of Law, Knuckey testified recently at the Commons foreign affairs committee examining a proposal to toughen scrutiny of the operations of Canadian mining and resource companies overseas.

Supporters of the private member’s bill brought in by Liberal MP John McKay (Scarborough-Guildwood) say it would improve on a toothless government watchdog installed by the Harper government.

Responding to the testimony at the committee, Barrick spokesman Vince Borg flatly denied the allegations and said such actions would have been the subject of a full investigation by Barrick and its subsidiary in Papua New Guinea.

“We are alarmed by the extraordinary and extremely serious accusation that security personnel working at the Porgera mine may have sexually assaulted local Porgeran women,” Borg said in a statement.

“To our knowledge, there have been no cases of sexual assault reported to mine management involving PJV security personnel while on duty, since Barrick acquired its interest in the mine in 2006,” Borg said.

“Barrick and PJV would encourage anyone who has information related to a serious crime of this or any other nature to report it immediately to (Papua New Guinea) authorities in order for it to be properly investigated and receive due process under the law.”

McKay’s proposed legislation (Bill C-300) would break new ground internationally. Canada is home to many of the world’s largest multinational mining and metals firms, and the bill is believed to be a first-ever attempt to exercise control over companies operating abroad.

If passed, it would empower the trade and foreign affairs ministers to produce a set of corporate social responsibility standards for Canada’s resource firms. The guidelines would be based on international human rights conventions and rights and environmental norms set out by the World Bank.

Based on those guidelines, any Canadian resident or a resident of a country in which a Canadian resource company is doing business could complain to Ottawa.

After an eight-month government investigation of the allegation, the results would be made public. Companies judged to have contravened the ministers’ guidelines would be denied Ottawa’s financial support through the Export Development Corp. and the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. Pro-business consular services by Canadian missions abroad would also be denied to such companies.

The legislation “would place Canada as a front-runner, rather in the back seat, of engaging in addressing issues around corporate and government accountability,” Viviane Weitzner of the North-South Institute told the Commons committee last week.

An all-party Commons foreign affairs committee first called for improvements in corporate social responsibility in a 2005 report that said activities by Canadian mining and resource companies in developing countries have had “adverse effects on local communities.”

A 2007 study urged Ottawa to establish tough social responsibility standards, appoint an independent ombudsman and set up a regulatory committee to review non-compliance by companies.

Two years later, International Trade Minister Stockwell Day responded with voluntary guidelines for corporate social responsibility and the creation of a federal counsellor to assist companies with these issues.

Social justice groups and opposition MPs say Day’s initiative is inadequate. Marketa Evans, who has taught at the University of Toronto and worked with mining companies and their critics among non-governmental organizations, was appointed corporate social responsibility counsellor last month.

But Evans does not have the power to review alleged abuses by Canadian resource companies unless the company agrees to the probe.

McKay said the government’s approach is “worse than nothing.”

“It would be better if she didn’t exist at all. She has to phone up the company and say, ‘Gee, can we investigate you?’ What fool believes in that?” he said in an interview.

Critics of the legislation warn it is overkill and will have adverse affects on Canada and its mining companies, possibly forcing some to move out of Canada.

Robert Wisner, a lawyer with McMillan in Toronto, told MPs that foreign governments would consider Canada’s scrutiny of mining operations abroad as interference in their jurisdiction and the approach in the legislation is so vague that it would create legal uncertainty for Canadian firms.

“The bill lacks guarantees for even a minimum level of procedural fairness for the companies that will be accused of wrongdoing,” he testified at the Commons committee.

“This uncertainty and lack of procedural fairness will deter even the most responsible Canadian companies from investing abroad.”

Few private members’ bills become law but McKay’s proposal, which is generally supported by the opposition parties – though opposed by the Conservative minority – stands a fairly good chance of being passed when it comes up for a final vote early next year.