Canadian mining firm questioned for activities in ‘North Korea of Africa’
Provided by iPolitics
By Michelle Zilio | Nov 1, 2012
A Canadian mining company defended its activities in Eritrea — a nation dubbed the “North Korea of Africa” by some — at a Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights meeting Thursday.
Cliff Davis, president and CEO of Vancouver-based Nevsun Resources Ltd., testified before the subcommittee on Nevsun’s mine in Bisha, Eritrea, the company’s only mining operation. Davis volunteered to speak to the subcommittee after human rights groups testified in February, criticizing Nevsun for investing in a country with an “appalling” human rights record.
Eritrea is the second-most militarized country in the world, behind North Korea. Despite a ban on external NGOs and press, reports show Eritrea has a history of human rights violations and corruption.
Nevsun began its activity at the Bisha Mine in 2008. The mine, which Davis said is the first modern mining project in the small east African nation, has gold, silver, copper and zinc. Gold mining started in February 2011 and likely will end in early 2013, at which point the copper project is expected to start, according to Davis.
“Eritrea is an underdeveloped country. It represents a challenging environment for a Canadian company, especially a small company like Nevsun,” Davis told the subcommittee. “We believe that Canadians can be proud of the work we have done in Eritrea.”
But human rights advocates beg to differ.
Elizabeth Chyrum, director of Human Rights Concern Eritrea and an Eritrean herself, Aaron Berhane of Eritrean Human Rights Group Canada, and Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, testified before the subcommittee in February, raising concerns about the poor treatment of Eritrean workers by Segen Construction, a government-owned Eritrean company hired by Nevsun at the mine.
At the February meeting, Chyrum said the Segen employees, all of whom are Eritrean, work “16 hour days,” are paid little, sleep in “makeshift-like camps” and eat poorly. She also noted that some of the subcontracted workers are military conscripts used as “slaves,” who risk persecution from the government for fleeing mandatory service.
At the meeting Wednesday, David Sweet, a Conservative member of the subcommittee, raised the issue of Segen forcibly hiring conscripts at the Bisha mine. Davis, who said he visits the Bisha mine upwards of eight or nine times a year, told the subcommittee Nevsun hired a consultant recommended by “World Bank institutions” to develop a process to ensure no conscripts were working at the mine.
“We insisted that, for instance in the use of Segen, that the subcontractors’ employees and anybody that was on our site had to be free of national service,” said Davis.
The subcommittee then moved on to questions regarding Nevsun’s partnership with the oppressive Eritrean government, allegedly responsible for widespread human rights violations.
Ève Péclet, NDP assistant foreign affairs critic and subcommittee member, wondered how Nevsun would ensure that the mining revenues are used by the government to benefit the Eritrean people and not to purchase weapons.
While Davis said the mine is working to abide by international human rights laws, he admitted the Eritrean government has a good deal of say in how things work.
“Nevsun owns 60 per cent of BMSC (Bisha Mining Share Company) and the government of Eritrea owns the remaining 40 per cent. That means Nevsun must take into account the views of the Eritrean government in terms of its political sovereignty and as our business partner,” said Davis.
“We as a company are responsible for what we can control … We can’t control what the government does with it funds, nor do I think we should.”
Liberal subcommittee member Irwin Cotler pressured Davis about the human rights situation across Eritrea, which he said included torture, violation of freedom of religion and expression, and forced conscription.
“I myself have met with and heard directly from Eritreans themselves where, for example, they spoke of forced labour of military conscripts being used by local companies that are being subcontracted by Nevsun,” said Cotler. “How do you feel about your involvement in a country that has been described as the North Korea of Africa with respect to human rights violations?”
After Cotler asked the question repeatedly, Davis answered.
“I read as much as anybody else reads. There’s various reports from various sources and I’m not in a position to verify them anyway,” said Davis. “I’m certainly not directly aware (of human rights violations) at all. All I’ve got is the same access that you have with respect to Internet and articles.”
Earlier in the meeting Sweet said that after a quick Internet search, he found two accounts of appalling working conditions at the Bisha mine from the Asmarino Independent, an organization covering Eritrean rights issues, and a YouTube video of two former Bisha employees recounting unsafe working conditions at the mine.
While Davis said the United Nations and Human Rights Watch have visited the mine during its operation, Cotler, Sweet and Mining Watch Communications Coordinator Jamie Kneen said they were not aware of such visits.
Cotler said Wednesday the subcommittee will consider testimony on the Bisha mine and factor it into a report about the human rights situation in Eritrea.