Canada: court allows Eritreans to continue legal action against mining company

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The Bisha mine in Eritrea

Canada’s supreme court has ruled that three Eritrean’s can cotinue their case against a minig company, despite their accusations of human rights abuses by the company taking place abroad. Nevsun Resources has been accused of using conscripted labour provided by the Eritrean governement at its Bisha gold, copper and zinc. The three plaintiffs in the case allege they and many others were forced to work for 12 hours a day, six day weeks, were beaten, tied up and left outside in the hot sun. Joe Fiorante, Q.C., of Camp Fiorante Matthews Mogerman LLP, lead counsel for the plaintiffs said “"This is a huge victory for our clients in their struggle against massive odds to vindicate their rights… with this decision, Canadian courts have now rejected all of Nevsun's attempts to avoid facing a trial on the allegations that it was complicit in forced labour and grave human rights abuses at the Bisha mine."

Previously companies were only liable in Canada for abuses occurring within Canada. The company has denied all of the charges and has said it intends to “vigorously” defend itself in court. In 2017 the company argued in legal papers that the Eritrean military never provided workers for the mine, and even if they had that Nevsun wasn’t directly responsible for employing them, and that “There are contractual commitments in place that strictly prohibit the use of national service employees by Eritrean subsidiary Bisha Mining Share Company’s (“BMSC”) contractors and subcontractors.”

The legal action was originally filed in 2014 and this is the third time that Nevsun has attempted to stop the legal proceedings. In 2017 they argued that it made more sense for the proceedings to take place in Eritrea. At the time Madam Justice Mary Newbury observed that, given the evidence of human rights abuses and repression in Eritrea, sending the claim to Eritrean courts risked resulting in "no trial at all."

In 2015 the United Nations accused Nevsun Rescources, via it's subsidiary the 'Bisha Mining Shareholders Corporation' (BMSC), of using forced labour sourced from conscripted members of the Eritrean military, using testimony collected from Eritrean refugees who were conscripted into the states 'national service' programme. The report details the story of an Eritrean conscript, who was sent to the Bisha mine with his military unit. The former conscript said, “In February 2010, we all had to go to Bisha. We did not get any details, we were only told to go to Bisha. I don’t know how many we were, but it was the whole military division. I was part of a team to do construction, we were building houses... They would not tell us what we were doing, but sometimes we heard we were building the offices or living or changing quarters. We just guessed what it was for.”

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