By Aaron Berhane
When is the Vancouver-based mining company, Nevsun Resources Ltd., going to do business ethically? When will it admit to knowing about its gross human rights violations in Eritrea?
The Eritrean Canadian Human Rights Group testified at an International Human Rights Commons Subcommittee meeting in Ottawa on February 14, 2012. They explained about the horrible situation in Eritrea: the merciless torture of political prisoners and the negative role Nevsun Resources Ltd. is playing in prolonging the misery of the Eritrean people.
The next day the president and CEO of Nevsun Resources Ltd., Mr. Cliff Davis , came forward to defend the company’s activities in Eritrea in front of an International Human Rights Commons Subcommittee meeting. He bluntly said he was not aware of any such human rights abuses.
“I read as much as anybody else reads. There are reports from various sources and I’m not in a position to verify them anyway,” said Davis. “I’m certainly not directly aware (of human rights violations) at all. All I’ve got is the same access that you have with respect to the internet and articles.”
So that was his answer. Who could be the various sources he mentioned? They are Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders and many well-respected organizations have said the same things about the totalitarian regime in Eritrea and articulated the violations committed against humanity. So, if the various sources are saying the same things, isn’t he supposed to know about them? Of course he is aware of all the disgraceful activities happening in Eritrea, but he prefers to turn a blind eye to them.
I’ve been following the improper business dealings of this company in Eritrea. Human Rights Watch also released a report on January 15, 2013 (http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/01/15/eritrea-mining-investors-risk-use-forced-labor) about the issue of mining companies using forced labour.
Nevsun Resources has been using forced labour to maximize its profits since it started the Bisha Mining project in 2007. By collaborating with the Eritrean government, Nevsun Resources has violated Canadian and international laws for using free labour.
There are about 3,000 Eritrean workers, hired by subcontractors like Segen Construction, which is owned by the ruling Eritrean party. These workers are youth, trapped into national service for an indefinite period of time. Their monthly salary is $9 and they are forced to work 16-hours a day without proper safety equipment, food or insurance. They are treated like slaves.
The question we need to ask is this: Does the Canadian government know? A mining company like Nevsun receives the unconditional support of the Canadian government while the government thinks they are helping developing countries.
“As world-class corporate citizens committed to sharing their knowledge and expertise with developing countries, Canadian companies are helping bring greater prosperity to our friends throughout Africa,” said Ed Fast, Minister of International Trade in a statement upon his return from a trade mission to Nigeria and Ghana.
Contrary to Minister Fast’s statement, a company like Nevsun Resources Ltd. is not helping to bring greater prosperity, but only poverty, displacement and emigration. They are damaging Canadian values by aligning themselves with the totalitarian Eritrean regime which only abuses its own people day in and day out.
Nevsun Resources is using forced labour to maximize its profits, directly or indirectly. Although Nevsun is well aware of how the 3,000 Eritrean workers are exploited and abused, it has never even raised its eyebrows, let alone stop the exploitation and abuse these poor workers are going through daily.
It’s good to know that the Canadian government has recently given $25 million of CIDA funding to set up the Canadian International Institute for Extractive Industries and Development at two British Columbia universities. I hope this institute will put pressure on the mining company to run their business ethically.
But the Canadian government shouldn’t assume that will fix the problem. It has to take action against Nevsun Resources Ltd. immediately. If we don’t act now, it will be too late. Canadian values and, more importantly, the lives of thousands of innocent people are at stake.