Karyn Keenan, director of Canadian human rights watchdog Above Ground, has claimed that an upcoming decision by the Canadian Supreme Court on human rights abuses could set a groundbreaking precedent in the country’s mining industry.

The court is considering a case filed in 2014 by four Eritrean refugees against Canadian mining company Nevsun Resources. The refugees allege that the company has violated international law against forced labour, slavery and torture in the construction and operation of its Bisha gold mine in central Eritrea, while Nevsun denies the allegations, arguing that the case should be instead heard in an Eritrean court.

Keenan, however, believes the case could establish a new precedent for legal action in the Canadian mining industry.

She said: “It opens the window a little bit, or it opens it a lot. Is it a legitimate thing to [bring a suit against a company] to the courts in a country where the parent company is based?

“It’s been very difficult legally and practically to bring things back to Canada where the parent company is. Since [Canada] really is where the centre of corporate activity, responsibility and decision-making is, it seems appropriate for people who are harmed by that whole corporate body … to bring it back to Canada.”

Nevsun claimed in 2017 that the case should be settled in Eritrea, arguing that any wrongdoings were the responsibility of the local mine operators, not Nevsun themselves. But this argument was unanimously dismissed by the BC Court of Appeal, and the case progressed to the Supreme Court.

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The refugees’ case is built around the existence of obligatory national service in Eritrea. Eritrean citizens are legally obliged to serve 18 months of military or government service—a policy which often results in forced labour, according to Amnesty International—and Nevsun is accused of exploiting national service conscripts at the mine. The operation is joint-owned by Nevsun and Eritrean state companies, and it has been alleged that the latter are using their government’s legal framework to justify human rights abuses.

For instance, the Eritrean government insisted that local company Segen Construction carry out the construction of the mine in 2008. Segen is owned by the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice party, meaning Segen is unlikely to face repercussions in Eritrea for the use of forced labour.

Nevsun first began gold production at the mine in 2011, and it produced $614m worth of ore within two years. The mine was the subject of a 2013 Human Rights Watch report titled ‘Hear No Evil’, which describes examples of human rights abuses and forced labour at the mine.

The report reads: “The former workers uniformly said that a large proportion of Segen’s personnel at Bisha at the times they worked there were national service conscripts—and that many had served well over the 18-month statutory limit. Our interviewees said that Segen’s conscripts worked long, 12-hour days.

“The interviewees said that Segen’s conscript labourers were forbidden to leave the Bisha area except during authorised leave. Those who tried to leave at other times were severely punished.”

Keenan is optimistic that the presence of legal action in Canada will ensure a fair hearing for the case.

“If you’re taking on a multinational corporation and you’re suing them, and you’re willing to assume all the emotional and the practical and the financial risks and costs that go with that, you’ve thought this out,” she said.

“So, of course, you’re assessing where you have the best chance of succeeding, and of course you’re assessing what kinds of repercussions there will be for you depending on the forum.”