(Source: HRW). Mining companies developing projects in Eritrea are walking into a potential minefield of human rights problems, Human Rights Watch says in a report released on Tuesday.
The US-based agency says these firms most notably risk getting entangled in the Eritrean government’s uniquely abusive program of indefinite forced labour—the inaptly-named national service program. Eritrea, which has a quite a high number of journalists in its jails, has been under United Nations sanctions since 2009 because its government has supported Islamist fighters in Somalia. Its government has pursued a path of crushing political repression at home and a belligerent foreign policy, earning few friends.
Nevertheless, it is believed that some western companies have managed to circumvent UN sanctions, and have embraced Eritrea. A Canadian mining firm Nevsun Resources declared production in 2011 and has already produced hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of gold, according to HRW. A handful of companies – from Canada, Australia, and China – are said to be on the verge of developing other projects, and exploration firms are examining other potential sites throughout the country.
But HRW says it has evidence that most of the workforce are none other than the conscript workers assigned, and regularly exploited, by the government.
When Nevsun began building its Bisha mine in Eritrea in 2008 it failed to conduct human rights due diligence activity and had only limited human rights safeguards in place, the report says. At the government’s insistence the Bisha project engaged Segen Construction Company as a local contractor. Segen is owned by the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ)
HRW says it engaged in an extensive dialogue with Nevsun about these allegations and to learn what steps the company has taken to address them. Nevsun’s response to HRW inquiries and to the situation on the ground portrays a situation of deep concern.
“The lessons here are clear. Mining firms must either find ways to ensure that their Eritrea operations do not involve them in the use and maltreatment of forced labor, or they should not invest there at all,” HRW says. “They cannot afford to develop human rights safeguards on the fly, when project development is already underway, if they want those safeguards to be successful.
“And if their projects in Eritrea do become complicit in the use of forced labour they should be held accountable by their own governments and shareholders.
HRW says that its report should serve as a strong example of why governments like those of Canada, Australia, and China need to develop mechanisms that pay close attention to the human rights records of their companies when they operate abroad.
*Photo by Reuters/via HRW. The Eritrean military.