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Embedding the corporate responsibility to respect human rights in Canadian law

By Heather Cohen, International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, and Geneviève Paul & Lori Waller, Above Ground
Published on the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre blog

As policy experts from around the world gather in Ottawa tomorrow to discuss the role of home states in ensuring business respect for human rights, a central question will be how Canada can emerge as a leader in this rapidly evolving field.

It is a critically important time to have this conversation. As the push for corporate accountability faces setbacks in the United States, Canada may hold the key for legislative progress in North America on business and human rights.

Meanwhile, recent ground-breaking developments in Europe provide a model for home state legislation that aims to make respect for human rights by multinational companies an enforceable legal requirement. If adopted broadly, that model could go a long way towards closing global governance gaps, ensuring that corporations involved in human rights abuses are held accountable. The time is ripe for Canada to move in this direction.

To that end, we have brought key international players to Ottawa for the Bringing Responsibility Home symposium, where they will connect with Canadian leaders in government, business, law and civil society.

The Canadian experience to date

With more than half of the world’s mining companies based in Canada, Canadian policy debates on business and human rights have focused largely on the extractive sector.

Over the years, reports of alleged abuses at Canadian-owned mines and oil operations overseas have been repeatedly brought to the attention of Canadian lawmakers. A recent report from the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project found that, between 2000 and 2015, 44 people died and more than 400 were injured in conflicts related to Canadian mining projects across Latin America. Twenty-eight different Canadian companies were involved.

Despite years of parliamentary study and debate, the government has not yet created enforceable rules to prevent human rights impacts in the overseas operations of Canadian corporations.

The international community has taken notice. The United Nations working group on business and human rights recently urged Canada to step up its efforts to prevent and ensure remedy for the adverse impacts of companies’ activities at home and abroad. Similar concerns have been raised by human rights treaty bodies, including the UN committees for civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, children’s rights, and the elimination of racial discrimination.

Some progress may soon be on the way. In the lead-up to the last federal election, all but one of Canada’s major political parties promised to establish an independent ombudsperson to investigate complaints of human rights abuse involving Canadian extractive companies working abroad. While media reports suggest the government intends to follow through on that promise, no announcement has yet been made.

A shift towards regulation

Ultimately, we need laws that require corporations in all sectors to respect human rights and that guarantee access to remedy for those harmed if a company fails to meet that standard.

France has taken an important step in that direction with its new law requiring large companies to publish and carry out plans to prevent human rights and environmental harms in their global operations and supply chains. Enforceable legal requirements for human rights due diligence are also being discussed in Switzerland and other jurisdictions.

As Canada prepares to take on the G7 presidency and seeks a seat on the UN Security Council, its performance abroad will come under increased scrutiny. In its role as home state to powerful businesses operating all over the globe, it has so far declined to set enforceable rules governing their human rights impacts worldwide. To restore Canadian leadership in the world, it must set a course in that direction.