A new chapter provides insight into the role the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala played as the Canadian-owned Escobal mine moved into operations in 2013 in southeastern Guatemala. While Canada tries to paint itself a world leader when it comes to upholding human rights, this chapter offers a clear and little-known picture of the modus operandi of Canadian embassies in promoting Canadian economic interests over human rights and the rights of Indigenous peoples.
We continue to urge Canada to prioritize human rights and Indigenous self-determination in its foreign policy decisions, specifically as they relate to Canadian mining interests abroad. This means holding Canadian mining companies accountable for human rights violations. It means taking tangible steps to prevent harm in the first place, protect defenders threatened for speaking out against Canadian projects, and ensure that measures are in place to provide meaningful and adequate remedy. It also means ensuring that economic and political interests do not trump the fundamental rights of people around the world.
Photo: Then-Canadian Ambassador Hugues Rousseau signs the voluntary agreement between the government of Guatemala and Tahoe Resources. Guatemala City, Guatemala. April 29, 2013. (James Rodríguez, Mimundo.org)
Canada describes itself as a “global champion of human rights” and in its bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council this year, the Canadian government listed “promoting human rights and improving equity and justice for people at home and around the world” as one of its top priorities. Likewise, Canadian embassies – mandated to represent the Canadian government abroad – try to paint a picture of respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples, as they hold forums on “best practices for Indigenous inclusion” that according to event publicity, are spaces to promote “self-determination” and “defense of the territory.”
But Canadian embassies simultaneously offer political, economic and diplomatic support to Canadian companies as they seek new economic opportunities in other countries.
And so what happens when an Indigenous and/or campesino community, in an effort to protect their land, denounce the actions of a Canadian mining company before the Canadian embassy? Which takes priority: the protection of human rights or Canadian economic interests?
Putting under the microscope the actions of the Canadian embassy in Guatemala: the case of the Canadian Escobal mine
"Qualifying as Canadian: Economic Diplomacy, Mining, and Racism at the Escobal Mine in Guatemala," written by Caren Weisbart, Jennifer Moore and Charlotte Connolly, opens a window into the world of Canadian embassies that are increasingly coming under scrutiny for their role promoting Canadian mining in the Global South and infringing on the human and collective rights of Indigenous peoples in the process.
The chapter, first published in English and now available in Spanish, focuses on the almost unconditional support provided by the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala to Tahoe Resources’ Escobal mine (now in the hands of Pan American Silver, also a Canadian company). This support was given despite significant violence associated with the company’s operations and the strong and public opposition of Indigenous and other local communities to the project.
Since 2011, a movement in southeastern Guatemala led by the Xinka and other campesino communities has organized to peacefully oppose the Escobal silver mine – a Canadian project imposed in their communities without their consultation or consent. When they began expressing their opposition to the mine and to the Guatemalan government decisions to greenlight the project, they might not have imagined that another actor would be supporting the project behind the scenes. This actor was perhaps not as visible, but was just as important and interested in advancing the project: the Canadian embassy.
Canada’s diplomatic practices can be questionable and in many instances, have been very problematic. In this chapter, the authors bring years of experience and important critical analysis to thousands of pages of documents obtained through Access to Information requests to provide insight into what is known as Canada’s “economic diplomacy.” In the case of the Escobal mine, this concept is reflected in the influence Canadian officials had as they helped Tahoe navigate and eventually overcome the political and social risks in Guatemala to obtain an operating license for the mine, begin operations, and maximize profits.
Described in detail in the chapter is the April 29, 2013 signing ceremony for the voluntary royalty agreement between Tahoe Resources and the Guatemalan government. Guests of honor at the ceremony were then-Canadian Ambassador to Guatemala Hugues Rousseau and the former General and President at the time, Otto Pérez Molina. Molina was well-known for his military involvement in a genocide perpetrated against the Maya Ixil in the 1980s and for other crimes related to his time as Director of Military Intelligence between 1992 and 1993. The ceremony – whose objective was to provide gravitas to the Canadian mining investment – took place only days after mine security opened fire against peaceful demonstrators protesting the recently-authorized exploitation license.
Months later, the embassy announced that the company was no longer eligible to receive embassy support. This decision, however, was not made because of the human rights situation and violence related to the imposition of the mine, but due to the “minimal” economic ties the embassy said Tahoe Resources maintained with Canada. The authors, however, describe how this support never really ceased.
Throughout the chapter, Weisbart, Moore, and Connolly allude to the threads of colonial violence that run through the very fabric of Canada’s mining industry and how these threads are woven with the “dominant racist and patriarchal assumptions” that are still very much present within Guatemala’s economic elite. These dynamics become very clear when both the Canadian embassy and the economic elite attempt to delegitimize community resistance to the Canadian mining project by attributing their legitimate opposition to the manipulation and influence of international NGOs.
More specifically, the chapter provides a critical analysis of the way in which the Canadian embassy promotes a neoliberal notion of "dialogue" to manage the risks faced by Canadian investments. This practice of dialogue “resonates with core elements of Guatemala’s post-conflict political dynamics,” which “tend to characterize Indigenous and campesino resistance as anti-development, unreasonable, and subversive” in order to delegitimize and ignore their opposition to extractive projects such as the Escobal mine. The promotion of dialogue is an insidious practice, in that it deflects attention away from holding Canadian companies accountable for the abuses they commit or from preventing social and environmental harm in the first place.
The actions of the Canadian embassy in Guatemala are not an isolated case
Since 2016, Canada has established Voices at Risk: Canada's Guidelines on Supporting Human Rights Defenders. The guidelines "offer practical advice for officials at Canadian missions abroad… to promote respect for and support human rights defenders.” However, rigorous studies by corporate accountability experts show how Canada continues to prioritize diplomatic support for mining companies over the safety of human rights and environment defenders.
To cite a few examples in other countries: in 2021, the Canadian embassy in Ecuador ignored international calls to offer diplomatic support to the first female President of the Shuar Arutam People in the Ecuadorian Amazon, after she allegedly received a death threat by a Canadian mining company official; in Mexico, the Canadian embassy has been accused of endangering the life of Mariano Abarca, a community leader in Chiapas who was murdered with impunity in 2009 after speaking out against environmental contamination by a Canadian mining company. It has been widely documented that the embassy provided extensive support to the Canadian company and did nothing to help protect the environment leader after the embassy learned that he was in significant danger. This year, the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project (JCAP) filed a complaint against Canada with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of Mariano Abarca's family.
Pro-democracy movements in Guatemala under attack
The Spanish version of this chapter has come at an opportune moment, as democracy is facing its greatest attack since the dictatorships of the 1980s. Progressive presidential candidate Bernardo Arévalo won August’s national election, but Guatemala’s Public Prosecutor’s Office has since made every effort to overturn the election results. Arévalo’s anti-corruption platform is posing a direct challenge to the political elite, who have spent the last many years stacking the Guatemalan judiciary with judges and prosecutors more focused on criminalizing those who speak out against corruption than reigning it in. In fact, dozens of judges, lawyers, journalists, and human rights defenders who have worked to end impunity in the country are now in exile, having fled in recent years after facing unfounded legal prosecutions.
Under the leadership of Attorney General Consuelo Porras, the Public Prosecutor’s Office has used this corrupt judiciary to try to strip Arévalo’s Movimiento Semilla Party of its legal status and prevent a peaceful transition of power set for January 14, 2024. These efforts have been met with massive, countrywide pro-democracy protests, led by the Indigenous Ancestral authorities including the Xinka Parliament. Attorney General Porras is not backing down, however; on December 8, 2023, the office declared the results of the 2023 presidential election void – a decision widely denounced by Guatemalan and international organizations as an attempted coup, and a move the Organization of American States has called “typical of dictatorships, not democracies.”
The extensive support the Canadian embassy gave to a Canadian mining company – both publicly and behind-the-scenes as documented by Weisbart, Moore and Connolly – is in stark contrast to Canada’s involvement when it comes to defending the most basic principles of democracy in Guatemala. While it recognized the 2023 election results as legitimate and just days ago added its name to a multi-embassy statement calling for a peaceful transition of power, Canada had little to say these past several months about the Attorney General’s public efforts to overturn the election results.
As the authors argue in this excellent paper, Canada does not always follow its own discourse of respecting and promoting human rights. On the contrary, Canada tends to promote and protect Canadian mining companies rather than hold them accountable when they violate human and indigenous peoples' rights or cause environmental disasters.
While this chapter details the role the Canadian Embassy in Guatemala played in supporting a Canadian mining company, it provides important insight into the priorities of Canadian embassies around the globe. Now available in Spanish, more mining-affected communities in Latin America and the Caribbean can access more information about the type and degree of support Canadian companies can receive as they carry out their mining operations abroad.