(by Kimberly Fraser)
In May of this year, an Australian mining company, Danakali Ltd, submitted an application to Eritrea for a mining licence for its Colluli potash project. If their licence is approved, they will be entering an ethical minefield that has seen other international mining companies become mired in human rights problems.
Pending approval, the Colluli potash project is expected to begin production in 2019. The mine would operate in the Danakil Depression, one of the lowest and hottest points on earth, near the border with Ethiopia. Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a 30-year war. The country is secretive and repressive and has been severely affected by prolonged conflict and drought. Fear of further conflict with Ethiopia has led Eritrea to establish strict national service conscription. All Eritreans must spend 18 months in national service, however for many, this becomes an indefinite way of life. National service conscripts are frequently used to work in state-controlled construction companies where they often earn as little as $30 a month. The use of indefinite conscripts in this manner has caused many international organisations, such as Human Rights Watch, to declare the national service scheme as forced labour and a gross human rights violation.
International mining companies that operate in Eritrea face pressure from the Eritrean government to use their construction companies to develop project infrastructure. If they do so, they may become complicit in the forced labour of national service conscripts; a serious human rights abuse. While the direct responsibility for such human rights abuses belongs to the Eritrean government, it is clear that mining companies need to put in place policies and procedures to ensure that they can prevent, detect and respond to any human rights issues stemming from their operations.
While new mines are an important source of jobs and much needed revenue for developing countries, it is vitally important that companies conduct due diligence activity around the potential human rights risks involved. Furthermore, the Australian government should set in place a legal framework to ensure that it can verify Australian corporations operating overseas are respecting human rights.
Economic development should not come at the cost of human rights abuse and mining companies such as Danakali need to be aware of the fine line they are treading as they begin operations in countries like Eritrea. Likewise, if Australian mining companies are found to be complicit in human rights abuses overseas, the Australian government needs to be able to hold them accountable for their actions.
(Kimberly Fraser is a volunteer with Jesuit Social services (Australia) and works on Justice in Mining issues).