Tuesday, September 16, 2008

AI Canada: feds continue to drag their feet on corporate accountability

Here is an exchange of letters I have had over the last few months with the Conservative government regarding the Roundtable recommendations. They have just been published on AI Canada's BHR blog (thanks Fiona). First is a letter I sent to David Emerson and Stephen Harper. Second is a disappointing response from Michael Fortier, Minister of International Trade. Third is my response to Fortier's letter.
Dear Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Minister Emerson,

I am writing to you regarding the need for human rights standards to which Canadian extractive sector companies will be accountable. We have seen time and time again that voluntary guidelines are not enough to stem the incidence of human rights violations, as Canadian mining companies have been complicit in a range of human rights violations and environmental abuses.

We have recently passed the one-year anniversary of the release of the Advisory Group Report arising from the National Roundtable on Corporate Social responsibility. As a Canadian, I am upset that your government as not implemented the recommendations articulated in the report.

These recommendations are the culmination of a rare dialogue between industry and civil society. They provide us with an opportunity to ensure that Canadian companies respect human rights in their fields of operations in other countries. Both industry and civil society stand by the report, and are calling on you to take action.

In particular, I want to see

  • Mandatory human rights standards for Canadian transnational oil, gas and mining companies.
  • Monitoring mechanisms to make sure Canadian companies meet these standards.
  • Legislation to hold Canadian transnational oil, gas and mining companies accountable in Canada when found complicit in human rights abuses.

Mr. Harper, at the 2007 G8 meeting in Heiligendamm, Germany, you expressed support for these recommendations, saying that their implementation would make Canada a G8 leader in supporting principles of corporate social responsibility.

I respectfully urge you to put forth legislation implementing these recommendations as soon as possible. The upcoming G8 Leader’s Summit at Hokkaido Japan would be a prime opportunity to make an announcement to this effect.

Stephen Karr

Dear Mr. Karr:

This is in response to your email of June 18, 2008, addressed to the
Honourable David Emerson and the Prime Minister, concerning the Canadian extractive sector and human rights. As Minister of International Trade, I am pleased to respond to you.

The Government of Canada attaches a great deal of importance to
corporate social responsibility, and encourages and expects Canadian companies investing abroad to respect all applicable laws and to conduct their operations in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.

The Government encourages the Canadian business community to develop and implement corporate social responsibility practices in their operations abroad, recognizing that responsible business conduct reinforces the positive effects that trade and investment can have on human rights, the environment, competitiveness and international economies.

Voluntary initiatives can advance corporate social responsibility
objectives in a more flexible and expeditious way than regulation. The Advisory Group's recommendations, to which you refer in your email, are consistent with such a voluntary approach. While Canadian companies are, by and large, responsible corporate players, the Government recognizes that more can be done to enhance the ability of the Canadian extractive sector to manage the social and environmental risks of its operations overseas. The Government of Canada has already acted on two of the recommendations emerging from the Roundtables process: Canada's support for the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and enhanced public reporting by the Canada Investment Fund for Africa. Please be assured that the Government is carefully examining all of the recommendations contained in the Advisory Group Report and will present its proposed course of action in due course.

Thank you for sharing your views on this issue.

Michael M Fortier
Minister of International Trade

Dear Mr. Fortier:

Thank you for your e-mail of August 21, in response to my e-mail of June 18 urging support for the recommendations of the Advisory Group arising from the National Roundtable on Corporate Social Responsibility. As you correctly note, socially responsible business conduct is good for not only human rights and the environment, but business as well.

However, I must respectfully express disappointment over your response, and urge you to reconsider. There are two specific comments in your letter I feel I must address.

First, you state that voluntary approaches can advance CSR “in a more flexible and expeditious way than can regulation.” In themselves, voluntary approaches provide helpful guides to socially responsible business conduct, but they are not enough. We have seen repeatedly that many companies will simply ignore voluntary guidelines if they find them inconvenient.

Second, you state that the Advisory Group’s recommendations are “consistent with a voluntary approach.” Actually, a purely voluntary approach will ignore a significant portion of the Advisory Group’s report. The recommendations clearly call for mandatory standards and reporting obligations. In addition, they call for monitoring mechanisms in the forms of an independent ombudsperson and a tripartite Compliance Review Committee to ensure that companies are meeting these standards.

The recommendations as a whole provide us with a coherent process to ensure corporate social responsibility in the extractive sector. As human rights violations and environmental abuses continue, I respectfully urge you to promptly reconsider your government’s position on this very important matter.

Stephen Karr

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