IN THE MEDIA ~ Op-ed ~ Turning around Canada's human-rights hypocrisy (Bill C-492).

Turning around Canada's human-rights hypocrisy (Bill C-492).
Canadian Dimension. 42 (5):13-14 Sept./Oct. 2008.

On December 10, 2007, I introduced a private member’s bill to make international standards of accountability applicable to grave human rights offenses committed by Canadians abroad. 

Bill C-492 would allow foreign citizens to bring a lawsuit against Canadian corporations or citizens in Federal Court for violations of basic human rights committed outside of our country. If my bill becomes law, corporations who abuse the human, labour or environmental rights of persons in other countries could face hefty claims in Canadian courts for their illegal behaviour.

This is a continuing problem that received extensive national attention in 2007 with the release of the Advisory Report from the National Roundtables on Corporate Social Responsibility. The Report’s recommendations to enhance Canada’s corporate social responsibility standards were inevitable given the disturbing accounts by roundtable participants of human rights abuses allegedly perpetrated by Canadian companies while operating overseas.  Over one year later, the federal government has yet to adopt the Advisory Report recommendations designed to prevent such injustice.  The failure of the Conservative government in Ottawa to take corporate accountability is disturbing for a number of reasons.

Our legal system has failed to keep pace with the realities of globalized commerce in the 21st century. As Canadian corporations moved beyond our market to operate internationally some of our corporations have engaged in what I and most Canadians would consider to be detestable practices.  For example, Goldcorp Inc, one of the world’s largest gold mining companies headquartered in my own province of British Columbia, faces international criticism for environmentally destructive mining practices that have allegedly poisoned local water sources in Latin America.  Canadian companies would never dream of poisoning local Canadian water sources becase they know that, if they ever did, they would face heavy legal penalties. Why should we as Canadians, take strong stand against corporations that pollute Canadian water and then turn around and give carte blanche to those same corporations to take advantage of weak local governments and pollute and poison abroad? Our government washes its hands of these matters because it claims it is helpless to legally prohibit the activities of corporations in other sovereign countries.  This absurd predicament allows international human rights violations to go on unabated. How bad are the allegations against some Canadian corporations? You be the judge.

In 2001, the Presbyterian Church of Sudan, filed suit in U.S. Federal Court against Talisman Energy Inc. a $12 billion company, headquartered in Calgary, Alberta. Among other things, this suit alleged that Talisman aided the Sudanese military in attacking local populations in an effort to depopulate areas and allow for its oil exploration. The suit claimed that Talisman conspired to commit genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.  The question for Canadian lawmakers is:  why did this suit have to be brought in the US?

The lawsuit against Talisman was made possible because of a unique American statute known as the Alien Tort Claims Act.  Similar to my proposed Bill C-492, the Alien Tort Claims Act provides that non-citizens can bring a civil action in U.S. district courts for an alleged violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.  The fact that Sudanese villagers had to use an American forum in order to hold a Canadian corporation accountable for its alleged behaviour is a clear signal that there are crucial mechanisms lacking in the Canadian legal system.  In fact, as the Talisman lawsuit itself points out, “there has never to date been a successful lawsuit alleging a civil wrong grounded in an extraterritorial violation of human rights” in Canada.

The proposal that states can – and should - provide a forum for enforcing basic standards of human decency when violations occur beyond the confines of territorial borders is not a new concept.   The international community has long agreed that some wrongs are simply so offensive that every state can prohibit these acts without regard to where and by whom they are committed.  In fact, according to Amnesty International, there are at least 125 countries that permit extra territorial criminal application of their statutes and many states also allow civil claims to be made in these cases.

The Canadian government traditionally promotes itself as a defender of human rights on the international stage. Canada has been at the forefront of the creation of many human rights institutions at the U.N. and elsewhere.    In 2000, Canada became the first country in the world to incorporate the treaty obligations establishing the International Criminal Court into its national laws.

Yet the previous Liberal Government intervened in support of Talisman before the U.S. Courts and Prime Minister Steven Harper has not changed the government’s direction. This demonstrates a key problem with the present system of enforcing international human rights law in Canada. Criminal cases on both the domestic and international level require the cooperation and action of government officials. All too frequently, political considerations prevent criminal prosecutions of alleged violators from going forward.  Talisman may rest assured that the Harper government that will not refer this matter to the R.C.M.P., or any other competent legal authority, for a criminal investigation into its activities in Sudan.

The creation of a legal regime which could hold corporations civilly liable for acts committed outside Canadian boundaries would obviate the need of our government to involve itself in “sensitive” international human rights case.   Bill C-492 will not require official government approval before cases are launched, as the proposed statute allows individuals direct control over initiating their own lawsuits.  As a result, this Bill will allow human rights victims to eliminate their dependence on states to raise these matters on their behalf in court.  Canada protects its own citizens from abusive conduct by corporations because it has been deeply committed to the inherent dignity of persons.  It is hypocritical and antithetical to Canada’s international treaty obligations to allow Canadian corporations to go abroad and violated basic human rights of foreign nationals.  Bill C-492 is an important step to ending corporate impunity in this area of the law.

Peter Julian MP, Burnaby New-Westminster

NDP International Trade Critic