A message to GoldCorp shareholders: the Guatemalan people need your votes
By Renu Mandhane, Director, International Human Rights Program, University of Toronto, Faculty of Law
Goldcorp is hosting its annual general meeting in Vancouver this week. Shareholders will be asked to vote on whether the Canadian mining company, listed on both the New York and Toronto stock exchanges, should temporarily suspend operation of the Marlin mine, a particularly notorious open-pit gold mine in Guatemala. Two shareholders put forward the proposal on the basis of mounting evidence to suggest that the Marlin mine is degrading the water and land of the Maya Mam indigenous communities, and is operating on their ancestral lands without their consent.
In May 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommended immediate interim suspension of work at the Marlin mine while it investigates potentially grave human rights abuses, including violations of the right to health. The proposed shareholder resolution would do nothing more than force GoldCorp to respect the Commission’s sensibly prudent approach. As a responsible corporate citizen, one might hope that GoldCorp would comply willingly, despite Guatemala’s failure to require it to do so. But, alas, the Marlin mine is GoldCorp’s second largest source of earnings and, one year after the Commission imposed its measures, gold extraction continues unabated and GoldCorp and its shareholders reap the rewards. In the circular sent to shareholders in advance of the May 18th meeting, management urged shareholders to vote against suspension of the Marlin mine on the basis that it was not in the “best interests of the Company or its shareholders” (never mind the wisdom of the Inter-American Commission).
In their commentary on the shareholder proposal, GoldCorp management noted a number of voluntary initiatives undertaken to deal with alleged human rights violations at the mine, including last month passing human rights and corporate social responsibility policies. The policies appear robust at first blush: they reference all sorts of international agreements and bind their employees to respect them. However, beyond the lofty language, the policies are deficient in key respects. They do not require GoldCorp to assess the human rights impact of projects at the outset, obtain independent assessments of human rights performance, or remedy harm caused. The policies also omit any mention of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and make no clear commitment to the right of indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent. Notably, the policies are ambiguous in their application to the corporation itself, as a distinct legal personality beyond its employees.
GoldCorp’s policies highlight a larger problem with self-regulation in the area of human rights: corporations pat themselves on the back and expect kudos for simply putting words on paper, while they resist the rigour of independent assessment and continue to flout international human rights and recommendations made by the highest bodies entrusted with safeguarding them. Corporate social responsibility and human rights policies are only valuable insofar as they change corporate behaviour; GoldCorp’s continued failure to suspend operation of the Marlin mine despite guidance from the Inter-American Commission illustrates aptly how words can be rendered virtually meaningless through action.
How has this seemingly untenable situation come to pass? Blame your federal government. Successive governments have remained steadfast in their opposition to regulation that would ensure that Canadian extractive sector companies operating abroad respect basic environmental and human rights standards, despite the fact that these corporations often receive taxpayer-funded subsidies. The Marlin mine is one of the clearest illustrations of why we need to move beyond corporate self-regulation in the area of human rights. At the moment, it is left to GoldCorp’s shareholders to force compliance with international law by voting to suspend operation of the Marlin mine.