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Achieving a just transition — Human rights, justice, and equity

10 December 2022

There is no doubt that mining is going to be at the centre of a ‘just transition’, a phrase that we’ve seen emerge as a catch-all term for the societal transformation required to move to a low-carbon economy in a way that is fair and inclusive. Due to its broad nature, ‘just transition’ is often used to define multiple issues or challenges. I feel its original meaning can sometimes be lost.

By Marcus Addy, Manager of ICMM's Human Rights Programme.

Often focus is placed on the ‘transition’ element, i.e. the systems and innovations needed to address the urgent climate challenges. Less emphasis is placed on the ‘just’ element, and by that I mean placing people and human rights at the centre of the foundational changes needed.

The just transition is a theme that was consistently raised at the 11th UN Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights last month in Geneva. There was particular focus on what this could look like for rights holders in the next decade. Reflecting on this felt particularly timely as we mark Human Rights Day today, and the build up to the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights next year. 

Mining’s Role in a Just Transition and What Does This Mean in Terms of Human Rights?

The mining industry has a key role to play in a just transition. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), by 2050, the share of power from renewable energy sources could rise from current levels of around 10 per cent to 60 per cent, boosted by solar, wind and hydropower.  These clean energy technologies require an unprecedented volume of metals and minerals including copper, nickel and lithium.

More metals means more mining. This will mean the industry entering new frontiers and increasing its current footprint. Rights holders, particularly those for whose land is impacted, need to be prioritised in this process and companies must work to have the systems and policies in place so that people are placed ahead of profit.

Continuous engagement with rights holders will be critical to this. In my role as the lead of the Human Rights project at ICMM, I have heard consistently from community groups and human rights practitioners that approaches to the just transition cannot be determined by businesses and governments acting individually. Rather, that it must be a collaborative approach with a much wider group of stakeholders, grounded in the actual lived experiences of those impacted. If not, it will simply be another buzzword which has ultimately no real meaning for those directly impacted by this societal shift.

What Action Can the Industry Take?

Our members are already acting on this through the Mining Principles which includes a commitment to implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), and explicitly requires community consultation as part of the human rights impact assessments for projects. But given the scale of the transition there is still a considerable amount to do. Below I have outlined three key actions that we as the industry can take to put human rights first:

  • Identification and Management of Human Rights Risks - Transparent disclosure of case studies and data relating to human rights helps to improve performance and allows stakeholders, including investors, to hold companies to account on their human rights activities.  
  • Open Channels for Engagement – The use of tools such as effective grievance mechanisms allows mining-effected stakeholders to raise concerns easily, transparently, and without fear of recriminations. We are also seeing companies adopt approaches that are inclusive of local partnerships and are focused on listening to the voices of rights holders at a local level.  
  • Implementation of Global Standards – Standards such as the UNGPs, the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, and the ICMM Mining Principles help define good practice sustainability approaches for the industry. In the case of the Mining Principles they are a condition of ICMM membership and include specific provisions relating to human rights which help drive performance across ICMM’s members and, we hope, the wider industry.

As the rush for the metals needed for the just transition gains pace, it is our responsibility as the industry to uphold high sustainability standards so that society can continue to feel the full benefit of mining. This is why we have made human rights and Indigenous Peoples central pillars to ICMM’s current strategy. Key priorities for ICMM next year include working with members to operationalise the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights through the strengthening our human rights due diligence guidance. This is a critical first step as we continue to engage with human rights practitioners, community members, and investors to update and revisit approaches to human rights in line with leading practice and stakeholder expectations.

A decade will come around quickly, and I hope to see the mining industry recognised as one that is putting rights holders at the centre of its development approach for the projects required for the just transition and beyond. This will mean truly operationalising the UNGPs to ensure that appropriate due diligence is taking place. That due diligence needs to include meaningful engagement with impacted groups, and that engagement in turn needs to be listened to and acted upon by the industry in a way that leads to beneficial outcomes for all parties.