Canada's top court rules mining company can be sued for overseas abuses

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Canada's top court ruled that former workers at the Bisha mine in Eritrea, pictured in July 2013, may sue its owner Nevsun in Canada for alleged rights violations

Canada's top court ruled that former workers at the Bisha mine in Eritrea, pictured in July 2013, may sue its owner Nevsun in Canada for alleged rights violations (AFP Photo/JENNY VAUGHAN)

Ottawa (AFP) - Canada's Supreme Court on Friday ruled that Vancouver-based mining company Nevsun Resources can be sued in this country for alleged human rights abuses overseas that complainants say amounted to slavery.

The decision means three Eritreans who filed a civil suit against Nevsun in British Columbia can continue their case in a lower court.

It also creates new legal risks for Canadian firms operating abroad -- notably in the resources and clothing sectors -- as companies previously could only be held liable in foreign jurisdictions in which alleged abuses occurred.

The plaintiffs claimed they and more than 1,000 others had been conscripted through Eritrea's military service into forced labour to construct Nevsun's Bisha gold, copper and zinc mine in the east African nation between 2008 and 2012, and subjected to violent, cruel and inhuman treatment.

In court documents they alleged being forced to work 12 hours a day, six days a week, being beaten with sticks, and being bound and left to bake under the hot sun.

The trio later escaped Eritrea and became refugees.

Nevsun argued that the case should be thrown out on the basis of the act of state doctrine, which precludes domestic courts from assessing acts of foreign governments. But that was rejected by a majority of the justices on the top bench.

The Supreme Court also held that international human rights law -- notably fundamental tenets called "peremptory norms" that are so important they are considered universal -- may be applied to this case.

"Violations of peremptory norms are serious violations of rights that are important to everyone, everywhere. They need to be strongly discouraged," the court said in a statement.

In 2017, the Supreme Court declined to hear a similar case involving a group of Guatemalans suing Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources for alleged abuses at the company's mine in Guatemala.

The men sought redress for what they say were injuries suffered during the violent suppression of their protest against the company's Escobal silver and gold mine southeast of Guatemala City.

They argued in court filings -- and a lower court agreed -- that they were unlikely to obtain justice in Guatemala, and therefore brought the civil case to Canada, where Tahoe has its headquarters.

The company, which was bought by Pan American Silver Corp, apologized in July 2019 for the rights violations as part an out-of-court settlement with demonstrators who had been shot and wounded while protesting.

Canada is one of the world's largest mining nations, with 50 percent of public companies based in the country, according to industry figures.

Nevsun was acquired by China's Zijin Mining Group Co. in 2018 for Can$1.86 billion.