UN Working Group calls on Canada to do more to address human rights abroad

A United Nations working group on business and human rights is calling on federal and provincial governments as well as industry associations and companies to bolster their efforts to prevent and address “adverse human rights impacts” of business activities in Canada and abroad.

The UN panel lauded the federal government for undertaking some initiatives to deal with business and human rights, particularly in the extractive sector, but underscored that it could do much more.

“We believe that there is greater room for both federal and provincial governments, industry associations and companies, to consider their activities both domestically and overseas through a human rights lens, using the UN Guiding Principles (on business and human rights) as a baseline to assess corporate respect for human rights,” said the panel in its statement.

The statement outlined initial observations following a ten-day visit from the UN group. Its official report to the 38th session of the Human Rights Council in June 2108 will include further observations and recommendations, giving it ample time to examine the recommendations made by UN experts, analyze where it falls short, and take action, pointed out Emily Dwyer, coordinator of the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA), a coalition of society organizations that keeps a watchful eye on the Canadian extractive sector’s efforts on human rights and the environment.

“This statement by the UN Working Group means that there is an international spotlight on Canada, on Canadian business, Canada’s foreign policies and its inactions to date,” remarked Dwyer. “Canada is a huger global player in the extractive sector so we have a great opportunity to have a big impact around the world if we were to implement a real corporate accountability mechanism.”

Canada is home to more than half of the world’s mining companies, operating in Canada and across the globe. It is also a center for extractive sector finance, with 57 per cent of the world’s public mining companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX) and the TSX-Venture Exchange. All told, the extractive sector – mining, oil and gas extraction – in Canada accounts for approximately seven per cent of the country’s GDP, with the mining sector being the largest private sector employer, employing some 375,000 persons.

Canada adopted a corporate social responsibility strategy (CSR) in 2009. It was updated in 2014 to redefine the role of the Office of the Extractive Sector CSR counsellor, introduced international best practices extractive companies should adopt and linked Canada’s economic diplomacy assistance in foreign jurisdictions to a company’s adherence to the policy.

But the UN Working Group said that there is “room for Canada to broaden and deepen its emphasis” on business and human rights in its CSR strategy.

Global Affairs Canada, which manages the country’s diplomatic and consular relations, promotes its international development and humanitarian assistance, is key. While Global Affairs Canada provides CSR training to its trade officers posted overseas, the UN panel recommends that it provides focused training relating to the UN Guiding Principles, and how businesses can address and remediate human rights impacts.

Global Affairs Canada should also play a “stronger role” in disseminating the UN Guiding Principles among trade and export programs at the provincial level, according to the UN experts. A case in point is that the current CSR checklist for Canadian mining companies working abroad discusses how companies can manage social impacts rather than how to respect human rights in overseas operations.

The UN Working Group also “encourages” the federal government to examine how it might use regulatory measures focused on mandatory due diligence and non-financial disclosure as a means of promoting respect for human rights.

Export Development Canada, a Crown corporation that provides a range of trade-related financing to Canadian companies for overseas investment and trade activity, too should play a greater role to ensure greater respect for human rights, asserts the UN group. At present, the Crown corporation asks private sector applicants to engage in some type of human rights diligence as part of its financing decision. But the process has been criticized in some quarters for not being transparent. The UN panel suggests that the EDC release an annual human rights report to “instill public confidence.”

Provincial governments too should be more involved in promoting human rights, says the working group. Its trade missions abroad are an ideal opportunity to promote respect for human rights, maintains the working group.

“Canada has in its CSR strategy indicated that it supports and intends to implement the UN Guiding principles,” noted Dwyer. “So having this feedback should be really important and persuasive to the government. It provides a really interesting opportunity.”

This is part one of a three-part series.

Part two: Federal and provincial governments need to demonstrate “stronger engagement” towards duty to consult, says UN panel

Part three: UN panel calls on Canada to appoint extractive sector ombudsperson

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