Human Rights Watch recently released a report that details brutal gang rapes and other abuses allegedly carried out by employees of Barrick Gold in Papua New Guinea. Barrick, a Canadian firm, is the world's largest gold producer and Porgera is one of the world's largest gold mines. Now the company is scrambling to put things right, investing in new mechanisms for oversight and accountability and firing some of its private security personnel while others are being hauled away by the police.
No one wanted development of the mine to be marred by such appalling abuses, least of all Barrick. When we told them about the allegations months ago, they responded quickly. But the genuine shock of company officials who belatedly realized the gravity of the problems is no consolation to rape survivors whose lives have been devastated. I interviewed one woman who said that a Barrick guard kicked her in the face and shattered ten of her teeth before he and several of his colleagues gang raped her. Another said her husband had divorced her when he heard she had been raped.
This is not the first time a respected international mining firm has been caught up in allegations of serious human rights abuses. But Barrick is one of the world's most sophisticated and well-resourced mining companies. It is also a company that publicly affirms a commitment to human rights principles. So why did Barrick fail so badly to avoid such negative repercussions for the local community, and what is the lesson for the industry?
The answer is fairly straightforward--companies, especially in the extractives sector, need help to operate responsibly in troubled and poorly-governed countries. They need help preventing abuses and responding to them when they occur. They need help seeing the difference between serious allegations and scurrilous attacks. They need help dealing with negligent or abusive host country governments. This is far too complex a minefield for companies to navigate safely by themselves.
Many companies agree and have signed on to voluntary measures that promote human rights. But very few are willing to accept the help they need most. That's because the only meaningful way to provide it is through oversight and regulation by companies' own home governments.
Most major Western companies treat the words "oversight" and "regulation" as anathema, inevitably bound up with some kind of anti-industry political agenda. Just last year, Barrick lobbied vigorously to help defeat legislation that would have mandated the Canadian government to investigate credible allegations of abuse by Canadian oil, mining and gas companies operating overseas. Barrick's position carried the day--but had that kind of oversight been in place, it could have helped the company detect and address its Papua New Guinea problems much sooner.
There may always be disagreements about the proper extent of this kind of regulation. But actors on all sides of the debate should be able to embrace some form of meaningful government oversight as a good step forward. Companies that are serious about protecting human rights should welcome guidance and scrutiny.
It's not very difficult to imagine what this could look like. In 2007, Canadian civil society and industry representatives agreed to recommendations that included setting up an independent ombudsman. Such a government institution would have authority to investigate credible allegations of overseas human rights abuse by Canadian companies. It could have broad enough powers to bring problems to light and help address them, without stoking company fears of excessively burdensome regulation or politically motivated witch hunts.
Canada has not implemented the 2007 recommendations, and other major extractive industry hubs like the United States and Australia have done no better. But the fact that those recommendations exist show that consensus is possible on at least the first steps forward. Companies can either help encourage that consensus, or can go it alone and keep falling flat on their faces.
For companies that genuinely want to do the best they can to manage the human rights impacts of their operations, there's only one real choice. There is no excuse for the rapes and human rights violations at Porgera, and they should remind companies why they ought to support government oversight that can help prevent such abuses from happening.
Chris Albin-Lackey is a Senior Researcher in the Business and Human Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.