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The world’s miners are being held accountable for their conduct like never before, from ensuring safe working conditions for their employees and minimising environmental damage, to protecting worker rights and human rights.

Indeed, the annual publication of the Responsible Mining Index (RMI), a ranking of the world’s largest miners based on these criteria, by the Responsible Mining Foundation (RMF) has helped shine a light on the practices of mining companies, and raise awareness of any humanitarian abuses across their operations.

However, this increased awareness has not translated into significantly improved performances. The failures of these companies are well-documented, and in the most recent edition of the RMI, the foundation awarded miners an average of just 19% on human rights issues, with only two companies, Anglo American and Newmont, averaging a score of greater than 50%.

Indeed, since the publication of the 2020 RMI Report, new events have highlighted the mining industry’s inability to protect human rights at its operations. Petra Diamonds has had to pay out more than $6m to the families of seven people killed by security forces at its Williamson mine in Tanzania.

Meanwhile, Access Asia Mining plans to dig for gold over 4,800 square kilometres in Myanmar, with the state’s controversial military government set to benefit from the project. With such incidents continuing in spite of the work of the RMF, the question remains: can reporting and awareness-raising lead to long-term tangible differences for the mining sector?

International companies, local disruption

“Most large mining companies in the RMI Report 2020 show no evidence of translating their corporate commitments on human rights into action plans and tracking the effectiveness of implementation,” explains Hélène Piaget, CEO of the RMF, who went on to highlight one of the more damning results from the report. “The average score on human rights issues is only 19%.”

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This low score is all the more concerning within the context of the exploitative power dynamic that exists at many mine sites. A wealthy international company headquartered in one part of the world, and investing in mineral deposits in another part of the world, is commonplace in the mining industry, and creates a situation where the needs and demands of local workers are, literally, far removed from those who own the mine.

This separation is particularly clear in the case of Petra Diamonds, a Jersey-headquartered firm which has come under significant pressure for violence and human rights abuses at its Williamson mine in Tanzania. While Petra prides itself on a supposedly “ethical” approach to mining, boasting a place on the FTSE4Good Index and a seat on the Natural Diamond Council, it employed a local company, Zenith Security, to provide protection for the project.

Zenith has since been implicated in a range of crimes from beatings and incarcerations to killings. The tragic incident is a messy affair, with both Petra and Zenith responsible to varying degrees, and illustrates the difficulties of implementing abstract ideals of human rights protections where decision-makers and workers are on different sides of the planet.

“The direct negative impacts of mining are mostly local, so they tend to affect the local communities, workers, other industries in the vicinity and water catchment users downstream,” says Piaget.

“The RMI Report 2020 shows that disaggregated mine site level information on human rights related issues are mostly lacking. For example, of 180 mine sites across 49 producing countries, only about one-third of the sites disclose any information about operational-level grievance mechanisms for communities and workers.

“This lack of evidence casts doubt on the ability of companies to know about and respond to grievances, despite corporate human rights commitments.”

Awareness-raising or window-dressing?

There is also a concern that as projects like the RMI Report grow in scale, mining companies will engage in what the RMF has called “window-dressing”, rather than investing in tangible changes at its operations.

In a February 2021 report, which drew on the findings of the RMI Report 2020, the foundation highlighted the disparity between vague comments and tangible action regarding human rights protection. For instance, some miners achieved a score of as high as 100% in terms of making “generic commitments” towards defending human rights.

This was a far cry from the reality of many mining companies described in the 2020 report, where “only a handful of companies show evidence of having systems in place to develop strategies or plans to address these impacts”.

Piaget points to mechanisms by which workers can raise specific grievances with their employers as a key example of this disconnect. The RMF profiled 180 mine sites across 49 countries, and found that just 59 sites had mechanisms in place for local communities to complain to a miner about its conduct, while just 50 had similar programmes for workers.

With more than two-thirds of mine sites profiled all but ignoring concerns raised by those working at and affected by mining operations, it is difficult to interpret the work of many miners as little more than this kind of window-dressing.

The situation is made particularly frustrating as often, mining companies are the only actor with the influence to make tangible differences at their operations. Piaget noted that, in the case of international mining, discrepancies in the willingness and influence of national governments to ensure worker and human rights, means that on a global scale, private companies are the only consistent force across mine sites, yet appear unwilling to make lasting differences at their operations.

“Government legal framing is important, but the capacity and willingness of both national and subnational governments to regulate and monitor varies greatly from country to country,” explains Piaget. “Given the financial, intellectual, and organisational resources at their disposal, large mining companies should not need government regulation to voluntarily respect human rights, prevent harm, and provide remedy for violations where these occur.

“However, almost all the companies assessed in the RMI Report 2020 obtained inconsistent scores across their mine sites; this reveals the gap that remains in mainstreaming better practices across all sites, regardless of the country of operation or regulatory environment.”

Consequences across the industry

Yet this is not to say that work like the RMF’s is without merit. The work of raising awareness could translate to more tangible impacts for miners, with investors and potential supporters more aware of human rights abuses than ever before.

The fourth-lowest scoring company on the RMI Report 2020, Peabody Energy, has seen its annual revenue fall from $5.6bn in 2018 to $2.8bn in 2020. And while drawing a one-to-one relationship between human rights protection and financial performance is overly simplistic, miners are operating in an environment where humanitarian causes are seen as more important than ever.

Piaget also points out that miners are in a position where they can not only be affected by these changing perceptions, but help drive them in the future.

“Affirmation of respect for human rights is more compelling and effective if it articulates a comprehensive range of specific rights,” says Piaget. “In the case of mining for example, including respect for the rights of human rights, land, and labour defenders. Leading practice shows that prevention of harm should be the first priority, followed by tracking the effectiveness of implementation.

“Large mining companies, through their voluntary actions, can play a critical role in normalising the effective implementation of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, and set the pace for the rest of the industry.”

Considering the potential for miners to help lead this change, and the potential of the RMF’s work in guiding those reforms, the foundation has plans to release more reports in the future. Alongside its annual reporting, the group plans to release more specialised documents.

Piaget says that the RMF will release a report on “severe adverse impacts” by the end of June, that will aim to tackle one of the largest challenges to ensuring human rights protections: the reporting and cataloguing of abuses and responses across the world.

With the RMF continuing to fine-tune its approach to reporting and awareness-raising, there is hope that human rights will continue to grow in importance for the world’s miners.