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Canada’s human rights plans fraught with peril: experts and activists

Luis Fernando Monroy was shot while protesting the environmental effect of a Canadian mine on his southeastern Guatamalan community.


Luis Fernando Monroy has literally found himself in the crosshairs of a Canadian foreign-policy dilemma: Is Canada truly living up to its commitment to protecting ethnic and minority rights across the globe?

In April, 2013, he was shot three times in the face and once in the back by security guards outside the gates of Guatemala's Escobal mine, operated by Canada's Tahoe Resources Inc.

Mr. Monroy was part of group protesting the environmental impact the Canadian mine was having on his rural southeastern Guatemalan community, the disruption of rural life in the indigenous area and a lack of consultation.

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That has become a familiar complaint against Canada's all-dominant mining industry, which owns more the half the companies operating in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

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Last week, the United Nations working group on business and human rights concluded a visit to Canada by urging the government and business to "step up their efforts to prevent and address adverse human-rights impacts of business activities, both at home and abroad."

The UN panel called for "meaningful consultation" with indigenous groups affected by natural-resource projects.

"Canada may say it respects human rights," Mr. Monroy said Thursday. "They don't consult with us, they just roll over all of our rights."

In a striking foreign-policy speech this week, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland stressed the protection of minority rights of all kinds – an issue that will rear its head Friday when International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau releases her development policy review.

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That's because the new development plan is expected to contain new details on how government aid projects can find partners in the private sector.

Alex Neve, the secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, said public-private development partnerships are not inherently bad.

But unless the government can develop something successive ones have failed to deliver – a corporate social responsibility process with real teeth – its broad-based advocacy of human rights, and plans to partner with business on aid projects, are fraught with danger, he said.

"We still do not have the laws and policies in place to hold our mining companies to account for their human rights performance when they leave the country," Mr. Neve said. "It's a significant shortcoming and would really undermine what is at the heart of the ministers' vision."

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asian director of Human Rights Watch, said Canada is seen as one of the "good guys" in the region where he works, because of what Ms. Freeland professed on behalf of the government.

Ms. Freeland said Canada's role in the world is to "set the standard for how states treat women, gays and lesbians, transgendered people, racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic and religious minorities and indigenous people."

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But Mr. Robertson said there are less-obvious pitfalls as Canada pursues its trade and business interests in Asia – a key part of the government's economic-growth strategy – and it embarks on public-private aid partnerships.

In countries such as Thailand, Myanmar and Cambodia, "there are still ongoing issues with vulnerable minorities," he said.

The government and companies have to be wary about whom they strike business deals with and whether they represent legitimate grassroots interests, he said.

"These elite interests who would present themselves as possible business partners don't necessarily reflect the people on the ground."

Well-intentioned Canadians need to be wary, he said, of "assurances that everything is sorted, the land is completely free to be used" because that might not be the case.

The business interests that rolled through his corner of Guatemala ignored the input of local indigenous communities, said Mr. Monroy, who has now become an activist since the attack on him four years ago deprived him of his sense of smell.

After he was shot, he spent 16 days in hospital and had four operations, and then underwent 18 months of physical therapy because his nose was shattered in a hail of rubber bullets, he said on Thursday in an Ottawa diner one block from Parliament Hill.

Also on Thursday, the Supreme Court cleared the way for a lawsuit filed by the protesters against B.C.-based Tahoe, rejecting a bid by the company to challenge the venue.

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