In a groundbreaking decision, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) has told Canada that it must rein in Canadian corporations operating on Indian land in the United States.
The finding, issued in early March, was in response to a petition filed by the Western Shoshone Defense Project about the actions of Canadian resource-extraction companies operating on the tribe’s land in the western United States. Among other things, the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which has been ratified by both Canada and the United States, requires states to "guarantee the right of everyone ... in the enjoyment of ... economic, social, and cultural rights ... and the right to public health." The Shoshone petition claimed that these are the areas in which the Canadian companies are affecting them.
The petition especially targets Barrick Gold Corporation, the largest gold mining company in the world. Gold mining uses large amounts of toxic mercury and creates cyanide-laced leaching ponds, both of which threaten Shoshones’ right to health. The blasting used to open mining sites destroys sacred areas, which violates the tribe’s cultural rights to culture, and mining roads disrupt wildlife, undermining their traditional ways of finding food. Gold mining also requires vast amounts of water, which dries up springs and other water sources that the Shoshone need for health. The Betze mine alone uses 70,000 gallons per minute, and it is hardly alone. Western Shoshone lands are the third-largest gold producing region in the world, and there are six other Canadian gold companies besides Barrick operating there, with more applications for leases already under consideration.
The Shoshone have targeted Canada in part because the United States has failed to take any action to protect Shoshone lands. On the contrary, the U.S. government has declared most of Shoshone territory to be federal public land open to resource extraction and other commercial activities. The treaty protecting the original Western Shoshone territory—some 60 million acres from southern Idaho to California’s Mojave Desert—is still valid, but the government has gotten around the treaty by invoking a principle it calls "gradual encroachment." This legal tautology has been discredited by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but the United States has ignored those findings.
In fact, the government has been seeking ways of making their lands even more available to encroachment. Until now, extraction industries have been operating under a federal lease arrangement, but in 2004 Republican congressman Richard Pombo introduced an amendment to a budget bill that would allow foreign companies to buy this "public" Shoshone land for $1,000 an acre. (The bill was passed by the House of Representatives but defeated in the Senate.) And a second bill, introduced by Republican congressman James Gibbons (now governor of Nevada), would have offered more than 60,000 acres of Shoshone land for sale to the Canadian company Placer Dome, now owned by Barrick Gold.
The racial discrimination treaty is a binding agreement for Canada, which, like all state parties, has to submit to biannual review by the CERD Committee, the treaty’s enforcement body. CERD reviews the country’s report (and any accompanying unofficial "shadow reports" like the Western Shoshones’) and issues observations and recommendations like the one regarding Canada, which read in part: "The committee encourages the state party to take appropriate legislative or administrative measures to prevent acts of transnational corporations registered in Canada which have a negative impact on the enjoyment of rights of indigenous peoples in territories outside Canada. In particular, the committee recommends to the state party that it explore ways to hold transnational corporations registered in Canada accountable."
Will Canada act on that recommendation? One hopeful sign in that regard is a report published on March 29 by Canada’s National Roundtables on Corporate Social Responsibility and Canadian Extractive Industries in Developing Countries. Among many recommendations in this comprehensive government report, are several that stress the need to protect the rights of indigenous peoples in the areas where Canadian companies operate.
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