6 October 2016

A lawsuit filed against Canadian company Nevsun Resources is set to proceed in Canadian courts. The case involves allegations that the company used slave labour at its mine in Eritrea. In a ruling released today, the Supreme Court of British Columbia rejected Nevsun’s argument that Eritrean courts would be a more appropriate forum for the claim.

Today’s decision is an important win in the decades-long struggle to hold Canadian firms to account here in Canada for their human rights impacts overseas. Still, the route to justice through our courts remains fraught with barriers.

Canadian courts have generally been reluctant to hear transnational cases involving corporate defendants. Today’s ruling contrasts with the same court’s decision last year to dismiss the case against Tahoe Resources filed by Guatemalans who were injured by security guards at the company’s mine. While the Canadian judge ruled that Guatemalan courts were a more appropriate forum to hear the claim, it’s highly questionable that justice will be done in that country.

Canadian courts’ reluctance to hear transnational cases, combined with the financial and logistical difficulties involved in international litigation, prevent foreign plaintiffs, particularly those in developing countries, from bringing suit.

These barriers to accessing justice must be removed. In fact, Canada has a legal duty to ensure that people harmed by Canadian companies are afforded access to remedy.

However, this is only part of the story.

Canada also has a duty to prevent harm caused by its multinationals. This involves regulating companies to ensure that they uphold their responsibility to respect human rights, wherever they work.

Later this month, France’s senate will vote on legislation that establishes a duty of care on the part of large companies towards people affected by their business activities and those of their subsidiaries and contractors, anywhere in the world. France is just one of several European jurisdictions where laws of this nature are being considered.

Canadian legislators who’ve vowed to rebuild Canada’s reputation as a champion of human rights should follow suit.