A human rights policy for Canadian embassies is long overdue

A Memorial to Mariano Abarca in his home in Chicomuselo, Chiapas

The following is an op-ed written by Charis Kamphuis and Danielle Ching. Charis Kamphuis is a member of the Voices-Voix editorial collective. The op-ed originally appeared in The Hill Times on 31 August, 2016.

In June of this year, Amnesty International called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to address the issue of human rights with the Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto during the “Three Amigos Summit.” Amnesty International and other human rights organizations drew attention to the dangers faced by human rights defenders who are threatened, intimidated, harassed and killed every year in Mexico as a reprisal for their work on behalf of persecuted people and indigenous communities. Our Prime Minister might also look at improving the record of Canadian embassies in supporting human rights defenders in Mexico and elsewhere.

Human rights defenders are individuals or groups whose activities aim to promote, protect and realize economic, social and cultural rights. In many countries, their work is extremely dangerous. Global Witness recently reported that 185 environmental activists were murdered in 2015 across sixteen countries, including Mexico. This same report found that Mining and Extractives is the sector most linked to these deaths.
The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders recognizes their important role and both the US Department of State and the European Union have detailed guidelines that require their embassies to help enable human rights defenders to do their work safely. Unfortunately, Canadian embassies are not operating with the same instructions.
The problem is poignantly depicted by the case of Canadian mining company Blackfire Exploration and its mine in Chiapas, Mexico, documented in a report authored by Mining Watch based on the results of an access to information request. Almost immediately after Blackfire began operations in 2008, local community members began to raise concerns, alleging deleterious environmental impacts, broken promises to affected communities and threats of violence from company workers. In July 2009, community members traveled to Mexico City to protest in front of the Canadian embassy and community leader Mariano Abarca’s passionate plea to an embassy worker was caught on film. Abarca asked for help in the face of serious threats of violence, environmental and human rights issues.
Rather than listening to the concerns of community members, the Canadian embassy consistently dismissed and even disparaged Backfire’s critics, adopted and disseminated Blackfire’s perspective on the conflict, and actively supported the company in myriad ways, including by pressuring Mexican authorities to heed its demands at almost every turn. Then tensions came to a tragic flashpoint in November 2009 when Abarca was shot dead at close range outside his house.
Incredibly, following Abarca’s murder, the Canadian embassy continued to support Blackfire and denied the company’s connection to the murder even though former Blackfire employees were arrested and charged. When the company’s operations were suspended for numerous environmental infractions shortly after Abarca’s death, the embassy responded by seeking information on behalf of the company on how to sue Mexico under NAFTA.
Canada needs specific protocols, in line with the UN Declaration, that would require its embassies to actively support and protect human rights defenders, especially when concerns are raised about Canadian companies. The US policy would have required the embassy to designate a human rights officer, to maintain regular contact with Abarca, to encourage Mexican authorities to seriously consider his concerns, and potentially to offer him direct protection and assistance.
The Canadian embassy did none of these things. Rather, it enabled and supported Blackfire in spite of serious and credible allegations of environmental and human rights infractions, and in the face of concrete signs that human rights defenders were at grave risk. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. There is evidence of a similar pattern of embassy conduct in relation to conflicts between local communities and Canadian companies elsewhere in Mexico and Latin America.
Currently, Canadian embassy staff are guided by a vague statement on a government website saying that Canada values the role of human rights defenders and encourages foreign governments to do the same. Clearly this is not enough. Canadian embassies need policies that align with international standards and the tools to ensure that these policies are followed. The Blackfire case reveals that the embassy’s role may well be a matter of life and death.
Charis Kamphuis is a law professor at Thompson Rivers University and a Board member of the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project (JCAP).
Danielle Ching is a law student at Thompson Rivers University.
Image: A Memorial to Mariano Abarca in his home in Chicomuselo, Chiapas. Photo by Dawn Paley. CC Attribution-Non-Commercial.