The world's largest private mining company, Rio Tinto, has long been criticized for gross human rights violations dating back to its support of apartheid in Southern Africa. Despite its abysmal record, Rio Tinto has recently been accepted, and even courted, by intergovernmental institutions such as the United Nations and the Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (the Asia Pacific Forum). Rio Tinto has joined the Global Compact, an initiative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations and multinational corporations. The Global Compact does not limit which companies can sign up as partners, and for this it has received criticism from numerous human rights and labour organisations. More recently, the Asia Pacific Forum has affirmatively invited a representative of Rio Tinto to speak at its Regional Workshop on Economic and Social Rights being held in Hong Kong from 11 to 13 July 2001. This year's workshop focuses on the role of national human rights institutions in promoting and protecting economic, social and cultural rights. Mr. John Hall, manager of Rio Tinto's Corporate Relations Division, will be featured on the panel entitled, "The Corporate Sector and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights."
The Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions, established in 1996, is comprised of independent national human rights institutions from Australia, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Nepal, New Zealand, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. The Asia Pacific Forum works closely with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in promoting dialogue on regional human rights issues. This year's regional workshop is co-sponsored by the OHCHR and AusAID, the Australian aid agency.
Rio Tinto, based in the United Kingdom and Australia, operates over 60 mines and processing plants in 40 countries. The company employs 51,000 people directly and many more as sub-contractors. As early as the 1970s, Rio Tinto was violating basic international standards by illegally mining uranium in Namibia. According to the United Nations Council for Namibia, the uranium was being mined "by virtual slave labour under brutal conditions." Profits from the mining helped support South Africa's apartheid government, which then controlled Namibia. The United Nations Council explained that these activities were "in direct violation of United Nations resolutions, of a Decree enacted by the United Nations Council, the legal administering authority of the Territory, and of an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice." The United Nations Council also stated that "[o]ne of the most disturbing facts to emerge from the uranium hearings... was the existence of a 'security scheme' at the Rossing mine," and the chairman of Rio Tinto's admission that a well-armed "'private army'" was in place to deal with civil or labour unrest.
What makes these historical facts especially relevant is their close correlation with Rio Tinto's current methods of operation around the world. In Irian Jaya, Indonesia (also known as Papua or West Papua), Rio Tinto, along with the American company, Freeport McMoRan, operates the second largest gold mine in the world. The Indonesian military, supported by Rio Tinto's security forces and paid in part by Rio Tinto, has suppressed local opposition to the mine. According to the Australian Council on Overseas Aid, between 1994 and 1995 there were 22 civilians and 15 alleged "guerrillas" living near the mine who disappeared or were killed by the military with assistance from the mine's security forces. Other opponents to the mine have been arrested, tortured or forced to leave the area. As the mining operation expands, Rio Tinto is aware of the fact that more local people will be evicted, which means more opposition to the mine. In response, the Indonesian military has increased its presence in the area.
The reason for such widespread local opposition to the mine is due to the fact that the mine has destroyed much of the region and not benefited the local population. On a daily basis, huge amounts of waste from the mine are dumped into the nearby river. In 1996 alone, Rio Tinto estimated that it emitted 40 million tonnes of toxic tailings in the local river system. The mining operation has also ruined the top of the Grasbeg Mountain, a place considered sacred to the indigenous people.
Another infamous Rio Tinto operation is in Borneo. Rio Tinto owns 90% of the Kelian gold mine in Kalimantan. Prior to Rio Tinto's arrival to Kalimantan, small-scale gold mining was performed by the local population. Around 1989, under General Suharto, paramilitary police were brought in to force the local miners out of the mines. These people were never compensated for the loss of their livelihood. In 1990, Rio Tinto acquired more land, which meant that a number of settlements had to be razed. Many of the people who were evicted had to live in shanties. A total of 440 families were displaced from their homes. Some compensation was paid, but it was not adequate to cover losses.
Problems with the Kelian gold mine go beyond the eviction of the local population. More recently there have been allegations of sexual harassment and rape. These allegations have been reported for about ten years, but an independent investigation was conducted only recently. The investigation revealed that many of the claims of sexual abuse could be supported. The head of the inquiry, Mr Benjamin Mangkoedilaga, reported that the victims of sexual abuse had been threatened with dismissal if they did not cooperate or were promised a job or money in return for sex. Although according to its statement of business practice Rio Tinto claims to be committed to corporate transparency, the company apparently never revealed the investigation or its findings in its reports to shareholders or in its voluntary Social and Environmental Reports. Additionally, just last month, Oxfam's newly established Mining Ombudsman published its first Annual Mining Report. The report provides well documented details of grievances from local communities which have been devastated by the Kelian mine.
Human rights violations by Rio Tinto are not limited to Southeast Asia. In August 2000, the well-respected Australian television programme Dateline aired a report on Rio Tinto's operations in Brazil. The programme reported that local inhabitants who were looking for small amounts of gold on the company's mine were shot and killed by company security guards. According to the report, "One former guard has now told Dateline the company's head of security had urged him and his colleagues to use violence and torture to discourage the miners." Dateline also provided credible reports of mine workers being subject to lead poisoning at highly toxic levels (e.g., 77mg per 100ml of blood), while the company's doctors told one such worker that this would cause him no harm. The company has also made employees spy on trade union members and fired those who it found were active in the union. Notably, Principle 2 of the General Compact calls on business to "make sure their own corporations are not complicit in human rights abuses" which Kofi Anan has specifically explained includes "mak[ing] clear in any agreements with security forces that they will not condone any violation of international human rights laws." Principle 3 of the Global Compact calls on business to guarantee "freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining."
The Brazilian workers might take a page from workers at other Rio Tinto mines. Workers and their families from Rio Tinto's Southern African mines, for example, recently sued the company, at its London headquarters, on the basis of excessive exposure to uranium. See, e.g., Connelly (AP) v RTZ Corporation plc (House of Lords, July 24 1997); Carlson v Rio Tinto plc & Another (December 4 1998). And, in September 2000, residents of Bougainville filed a lawsuit in the United States alleging Rio Tinto's responsibility for environmental disaster, toxin exposure, and the murder or residents committed in complicity with the local defence force. These lawsuits are themselves evidence of the close parallels between Rio Tinto's actions of the past and present.
Although efforts have been made by some of the company's shareholders to try to improve Rio Tinto's practices, those initiatives have met with little success. In March 2000, the "Coalition of Rio Tinto Shareholders" submitted two resolutions for consideration at the company's Annual General Meeting. The first resolution called for Rio Tinto to become more accountable to shareholders through the appointment of an independent Deputy Chairman. The second resolution called for Rio Tinto to implement a code of labour standards "based on the internationally agreed core human rights conventions of the United Nations' International Labour Organisation." The resolutions were resoundingly defeated.
Judging by Rio Tinto's past record and recent failure to meaningfully improve its practices, this company is not an appropriate spokesperson for corporate responsibility and true commitment to human rights. The Asia Pacific Forum of National Human Rights Institutions should be more discerning in its selection of invited speakers. There are plenty of companies the Forum could have chosen to engage in a genuine discourse on promoting human rights. Unless something changes, the Forum's actions will appear to endorse Rio Tinto and will simply provide another speech Rio Tinto's public relations officials can add to their website.
This article was produced by Human Rights Features -- Voice of the
Asia-Pacific Human Rights Network, a joint initiative of the South Asia
Human Rights Documentation Center and the Human Rights Documentation
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