November 2014

Responding to human rights violations

Barrick implements remedy framework in the wake of allegations of sexual assault at Papua New Guinea mine

By Chris Windeyer

News broke in 2011 of a raft of sexual assaults against women by staff of a local security company hired to protect Barrick Gold’s Porgera mine in Papua New Guinea. The incidents had been occurring as far back as 2005. Security guards patrolling the fringes of the mine site would detain local women they found mining illegally and systematically abuse them. The guards offered women a heinous bargain: the choice between sex or prosecution for theft and trespassing. Human Rights Watch chronicled beatings and gang rapes. The NGO cited some women as saying their attackers warned them they would be imprisoned or fined for illegal mining if they tried to complain about what had happened.

Now, three years later, Barrick has completed the implementation of its response program. That was the focus of a September workshop in Ottawa, organized by CIM’s Centre for Excellence (CfE) in Corporate Social Responsibility and attended by Barrick along with several NGOs including Human Rights Watch, MiningWatch Canada, KAIROS and Publish What You Pay Canada. While the workshop went ahead under the off-the-record Chatham House Rule, Patrick Bindon, Barrick’s manager of corporate affairs for Australia-Pacific, said the workshop discussed Barrick’s experience establishing a remedy program based on the United Nations’ “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights,” released in 2011. The document enshrines a corporation’s responsibility to respect human rights and provide a remedy when those rights are infringed upon.

All told, at least 137 women reported abuse at the hands of six security personnel at Porgera. Another six security staff members were aware of the abuses but failed to report them. All 12 were fired and charged with criminal offences. However, none of the charges stuck, with the perpetrators either acquitted, charges dropped, or, in one case the victim reached an out-of-court settlement with her attacker. “I think we saw some of the inherent weaknesses in the Papua New Guinea justice system,” said Bindon. “There was quite a legitimate belief by women that if they reported these matters to police or took civil action through the courts those formal mechanisms would largely be ineffective in delivering justice.”

Bindon acknowledged that prior to Human Rights Watch’s reporting on Porgera, Barrick’s response was inadequate. “The company’s response clearly had weaknesses,” he said. “We’ve learned to look a lot more closely at the cultural and institutional issues that might be barriers to these kinds of things being reported.” Under intense scrutiny from Human Rights Watch, MiningWatch Canada and other NGOs, Barrick implemented what it called a remedy framework: a package for local victims of sexual assault containing health care and counselling services, legal advice and financial compensation. It also improved electronic site surveillance, began tracking the movements of security vehicles and hired several females to security staff. Furthermore, it established the Porgera Women’s Welfare Office, which receives complaints and helps women access remedy programs. The office also paid for awareness training on violence against women for members of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary, the national police force that handles rape complaints.

Ben Chalmers, vice-president of sustainable development at the Mining Association of Canada and co-chair of CfE, attended the workshop and believes Barrick’s response is a step in the right direction. “Barrick was able to develop an effective and independently operated mechanism suited to the local circumstances; they have shown that it can be done,” he said. “The Porgera Framework represents one of the first, if not the first, attempt to institute a standalone remedy framework for historical human rights violations since the adoption of the UN guiding principles.”

There is still progress to be made though. Barrick has acknowledged more sexual assault allegations and the destruction of homes on mine property by security personnel, and urged victims to go to the police.

MiningWatch Canada in particular has been critical of Barrick’s response to the spate of sexual violence at Porgera. Chief among the complaints about Barrick’s program for victims was the inclusion of a provision that women agreeing to remedy packages renounce their right to sue Barrick or any related companies. Catherine Coumans, a re­searcher with MiningWatch Canada, said the legal expertise made available to the women was not independent from the company. And, she said, if female victims were truly satisfied with the outcome of the remedy program, Barrick would not need to require them to sign a waiver. “The UN guiding principles say nothing about the right of companies to seek legal waivers,” Coumans said. “The company has a responsibility to provide remedy. Full stop.”

But Bindon defends that clause, saying it does not close off the victims’ ability to sue their attackers, nor does it run counter to the UN guiding principles. “In our view it is an entirely reasonable request that if a claimant at the end of the process was satisfied with the redress being provided, it’s fair for them to say they wouldn’t bring further civil action for the same harm they were already receiving redress for,” he said.

Bindon said the experience has taught Barrick how to better respond to human rights issues at its international operations. The company now screens security personnel for criminal histories and trains all workers in human rights issues, including violence against women. ”We’ve learned a lot about how to respond to these kinds of allegations,” he said. “I think we’ve learned to look a lot more closely at some of the cultural and institutional issues that might be barriers to these things being reported.”

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