Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted in 1948, the growing global economy has created new challenges. With operations that can span several different countries, large multinational corporations, such as mining and extraction companies, can act with impunity, without state oversight or the control of international human rights mechanisms.
As of 2013, more than 50 per cent of the world’s publically listed exploration and mining companies were headquartered in Canada. Many of those companies have been accused of being irresponsible, engaging in conduct they could never get away with in Canada, exploiting weak or corrupt governments and legal systems in foreign countries that turn a blind eye to their operations.
In 2009, Adolfo Ich, a Mayan Q’eqchi’ community leader, was shot dead by a security guard employed at the Fenix nickel mine in El Estor, Guatemala. Adolfo was seeking to calm the community during a protest on contested land with the mine. A bystander at the protest, German Chub, was also shot by the same security guard and left for dead. He is now a paraplegic.
Chub, along with Adolfo’s widow Angelica, took the mine’s security guard to Guatemalan courts, but the case was thrown out. Angelica was even charged with obstruction of justice.
Hope for change
In the CBC Docs Special Presentation In Search of a Perfect World, we meet Canadian lawyer Murray Klippenstein, who is using domestic law to champion international human rights. He managed to convince an Ontario Court to let the Guatemalans, including Angelica and German, sue the mining company here, in Canada.
“Mining companies kind of lived in this world where we go to another country far away, where the courts are corrupt, and that they could get away with things. But that’s not the case anymore,” says Klippenstein.
He hopes this landmark case sends shockwaves through the boardrooms of Canada, “What happened in Guatemala is what you did. You did it from here in Toronto. And so you have to be accountable here.”
Meanwhile, in January 2018 — an effort years in the making — the federal government announced the creation of an independent Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) “to investigate allegations of human rights abuses linked to Canadian corporate activity abroad.” The office will be advised by a multi-stakeholder advisory body on responsible business conduct abroad.
For more on this story, including former CBC correspondent Peter Mansbridge’s interviews with the Guatemalan villagers, watch In Search of a Perfect World.