Putting respect for human rights at the heart of mining

  • Share

Nicky Black
Director, Environmental Stewardship and Social Progress

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights - an occasion for celebration and for reflection. At its heart, the Declaration affirms that every person is born with inalienable rights and enshrines a promise to deliver a world in which those rights can be realised. Much has been achieved in the seven decades since the Declaration was forged from the ashes of global conflict, but a great deal remains to be done. Business has a major part to play and mining, long at the forefront of human rights debate, thinking and practice, must continue to embed and demonstrate respect for human rights.

While it took over half a century for the role of business in realising rights to be more fully developed in an international framework, it was foreshadowed by Eleanor Roosevelt, one of the architects of the Declaration in 1958 in a widely quoted speech: “Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home - so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm, or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.” 

It is the actions of business to respect human rights - in the factory, farm or office - and beyond along supply chains, in communities, and in engagements with governments, that are the focus of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. From our founding in 2003, ICMM has recognised that respect for human rights is a baseline expectation for all companies and fundamental to sustainable development and responsible mining. We are proud to have played a small part in helping to shape the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs) which were unanimously endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011. The UNGPs set out detailed recommendations to governments on what they should do to ensure that they protect human rights and for companies to ‘know and show’ they respect human rights.

Our member companies work to put respect for human rights into practice day by day across their operations. What does this look like? It means taking steps to understand how activities impact on people, their dignity, their freedoms, and then acting on what is learnt. For example, undertaking human rights impact assessments and responding to the findings in how projects are designed and delivered. It means making sure that security guards are equipped to deliver security whilst respecting the human rights of communities. It means working closely with Indigenous Peoples to respect their rights and ensure their communities benefit. 

However, we recognise that much remains to be done.  We are stepping up to the challenge, including updating our member commitments to make sure that they truly represent a benchmark for responsible mining practices that can be assessed and validated at the mine site level. 
Respect for human rights sits at the heart of these new performance expectations. They include a specific commitment to support the implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (see performance expectation 3.1) . In addition, members commit to implementing, based on risk, a human rights and security approach consistent with the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights and there are strengthened commitments on issues including worker rights, resettlement and the rights of women and diversity in the workplace as well as existing commitments on respecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

Our new performance expectations will apply to all 27 company members. Collectively, they manage almost 650 operational sites in over 50 countries, covering nearly half of the world’s iron ore and copper production and a quarter of all mined commodities. We believe the performance expectations have the potential to drive performance improvements at scale, across the sector and beyond.

Mrs. Roosevelt ended her reflections on where human rights start by noting that “Without concerted citizen action to uphold [rights] close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world”. Today is also the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which aims to protect the rights of those who work to protect the rights of others. This Declaration is unfortunately as relevant as ever. Alarmingly the last few years have seen a rise in reported killings, attacks, threats and harassment of defenders in many parts of the world. We have also seen a narrowing of civil society space with increasing restrictions on freedoms of expression, association and assembly.  At ICMM we believe an active and open civil society and strong rule of law are essential to the enabling environment for responsible business. We support the existence of an open civic space and want everyone – supporters and critics – to be able to express opinions safely and without fear of reprisal or persecution. 

As we reflect on these two declarations, and all that has been achieved since 1948, we see there is much more to be done. This will require all of us – business, government, civil society and as individuals – to play our part.