Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet
23 April 2019
Mr. Secretary-General Gurria,
Mr. Executive Secretary Muburi-Muita,
Thank you for inviting me to speak to this important discussion.
Before I begin, allow me to say a few words about the fire suffered by the Cathedral of Notre Dame last week. Millions of people watched in dread and powerlessness as the spire fell. It meant deep and irreparable damage to the legacy handed down to our generation by our ancestors.
This is also what is happening to our planet.
Today, I think we need to reflect about the wider lessons of what happened last week – the full realisation of the value of the legacy we enjoy and the importance of careful stewardship, before we, as a species, lose precious assets.
Human wellbeing – and even human life – depend on the availability of natural resources, from the wind and sun to the minerals, which humanity has always, through history, extracted from the soil. In my own country, Chile, the mining sector accounts for over 10% of GDP. As former President of Chile, I'm well aware of the challenges faced by governments, companies and communities in relation to mineral extraction – including their great potential for generating prosperity, sustaining livelihoods and fostering local development.
But in practise, the mining sector has often harmed human beings and their environment, and produced human rights impacts. And it is these issues you are here to discuss.
Two decades ago, when business risks human rights began reshaping global discussion, the extractive sector was one of the major focuses of public attention. Recognising the need for profound change, some mining companies became actively engaged in the debate on human rights guidelines for business. Today, thanks in part to their involvement, we now have international standards recognizing that all sectors in the economy, and all companies, have a responsibility to respect human rights.
Nevertheless, the mining sector remains a key sector of concern when it comes to meeting this responsibility.
Too often, we hear reports of extractive companies being involved with human rights harm. Allegations include forced labour, hazardous working conditions, the refusal of collective bargaining and denial of the right to peaceful assembly, as well as allegations involving threats to human rights defenders and failure to ensure adequate consultation and compensation of communities displaced from their homes by mining operations.
The industry has also been linked to environmental degradation, with a devastating impact on people's health, sources of livelihood and access to clean air and water. A recent study by UN Environment found that the extraction and primary processing of metals and other minerals is responsible for more than a quarter of global carbon emissions – and one fifth of the damage caused by air pollution to the health of people around the world.
These burdens exacerbate the already negative impacts of climate change on people and communities who live in disadvantageous situations. And climate change is also very likely to threaten elements of mining infrastructure -- resulting in further human rights harms. We have seen dams collapse following torrential rains, flooding homes and releasing toxic residue into water supplies.
Preventing and mitigating these risks to people and the environment is not only vital to our societies – it is fundamental to the reputation of the mining industry.
It is also crucial for the bottom line. Investors increasingly demand that companies address human rights risks. They are sensitive to public backlash often fanned by outrage on social media. That public backlash will certainly increase as communities around the world become more affected by climate change and ecological destruction. The likelihood that climate change will happen is 100% – a number that demands the focus of every one of us, including those in business.
Failure to take effective action may also result in legal liability. A landmark decision earlier this month ruled that English judges could hold to account a UK-based mining conglomerate whose subsidiary is accused of massive harm to thousands of people living near an open-cast copper mine.
And indeed, significant efforts are being taken to ensure that mineral supply chains work more responsibly. And I realise it is may be difficult for small and medium sized enterprises and artisanal minors to achieve this. My Office has over several years collaborated with the OECD, industry representatives, civil society organisations and experts in developing better tools and understanding to address risks including to human rights in mineral supply chains.
Individual firms, industry associations and multi-stakeholder initiatives have adopted new policies and set industry-wide sustainability requirements. For instance, in December 2018, the International Council on Mining and Metals made it a mandatory requirement for its members to prevent and address adverse human rights impacts in mining operations worldwide, in alignment with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Both the UN Guiding Principles and the OECD Guidelines for Multi-National Enterprises make it absolutely clear that mining companies should exercise human rights due diligence throughout their operations to proactively manage all actual and potential adverse human rights impacts they are involved. Effective due diligence also involves consulting affected communities – particularly indigenous people.
This is the global expectations of all companies anywhere. It also applies to any activity related to the extraction or development of new technologies to mitigate impacts on the environment – such as solar panels, lithium batteries and other technologies not yet in widespread use.
All resource use has consequences. Many renewable energy technologies still rely on natural mineral resources – such as the need for raw materials for batteries. But there are no off-sets for human rights abuse. It is therefore imperative that as efforts are scaled up to mine the minerals that will fuel the technology necessary to mitigate the catastrophic impact of climate change, the efforts to prevent and mitigate risks to human rights from doing so continue unabated.
Above all, we need to keep focusing on the core issue: the dignity and rights of all the human beings who are affected. A person who lives far from the media spotlight, in a traditional community by a river, has exactly the same fundamental rights as a corporate CEO in a gleaming building. This includes her right to a voice, and her right to justice and remedy.
We have many allies in this struggle. I want to thank the OECD for its extensive work on responsible mineral supply chains. This has been instrumental in advancing understanding of these standards and their practical implications – thus supporting the development of more secure, transparent and responsible companies.
We also have a roadmap: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which is a blueprint for realising human rights through development that is inclusive, participatory and sustainable.
The mining sector can play a significant role in achieving the SDGs. It can provide decent employment; empower women; promote local businesses and better local schools and clinics; and develop transport and better local infrastructure. But the major contribution to the realisation of human rights – and the SDGs –that can be made by business actors all along the supply chains of the extractive industry is to focus on respecting human rights in their own operations. The interests of the mining industry do not diverge from the interests of humanity. We all have obligations to our grandchildren, to our environment, and to other human beings.