Human rights advocates devise corporate accountability law for Canada
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Miner at work in the silver mines of Cerro Rico

The Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability (CNCA) has released draft model legislation that provides lawmakers with a blueprint for writing into law the corporate duty to respect human rights and the environment.

If adopted, the draft law would require Canadian companies to proactively ensure they are neither encouraging human rights abuse or environmental damage in their supply chains, nor turn a blind eye to negligent or harmful practices of their business relationships.

Similar laws are in place or are being developed in several countries, including Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Norway.

The European Parliament recently voted to introduce new laws that would hold international companies accountable when their actions infringe human rights or cause environmental damage.

In the UK, a parliamentary committee has recommended the government create a blacklist of companies that fail to meet obligations to uphold human rights throughout their supply chains.

By contrast, activists claim Canada is falling behind its international peers by merely encouraging corporations to voluntarily take measures to respect human rights and the environment.

Last year, three former Eritrean workers won a preliminary victory in the Supreme Court of Canada in a lawsuit alleging human rights abuses, including slavery and torture, against a Vancouver-based mining company, Nevsun Resources, for its operations in Eritrea. The workers’ claim was subsequently settled.

“All around the world, people are being harmed by the business practices of Canadian companies and their subsidiaries, subcontractors, and suppliers,” said Jean Symes, from the feminist social justice organisation, Inter Pares.

“We are calling on Canadian lawmakers to catch up to global leaders by adopting our model legislation, a comprehensive law that would help respond to the widespread and egregious abuses linked to Canadian companies including forced labour, sexual violence, and murder.”

Under the CNCA’s proposed law, if a company causes harm or fails to undertake its due diligence, those affected would have the statutory right to bring a civil lawsuit against that organisation in a Canadian court.

Finally, the legislation contemplates the creation of a commissioner to enforce the publication of annual reports. The commissioner would maintain a website where these “human rights risks” reports would be published.

Companies that failed to publish comprehensive reports could be fined up to $250,000.

“Canadian businesses that are already doing what’s needed to protect human and environmental rights will welcome this legislation,” said Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress. “Those that aren’t will now be held accountable for their failure to act.”

The CNCA’s proposed law has been endorsed by more than 150 organisations and unions that work with people impacted by the activities of Canadian companies in 32 countries around the world.

“The CNCA’s proposal stands in stark contrast to the modern slavery reporting law currently being examined by the Canadian Senate,” said Catherine Coumans, co-manager at MiningWatch Canada.

“The proposed law moves beyond reporting and requires companies to change their behaviour – and stop profiting from human rights and environmental harm – or face significant consequences.”