Written by José Luis Abarca and Viviana Herrera, originally published as an opinion piece with Canada's National Observer.
Canada is fighting to have a renewed global say when it comes to human rights, getting an early start on its bid to sit on the United Nations Human Rights Council for the 2028-30 term.
Topping Canada’s priorities list is “seeking justice and accountability for those on the front lines of defending human rights.” Not a bad priority, given the astonishing level of violence human rights defenders face globally. But for the families of front-line human rights defenders killed while speaking out against Canadian mining companies, it rings hollow.
Canada is home to nearly half of the world's publicly traded mining companies and for decades, allegations of human rights abuses and environmental harm tied to many of these companies have been well-documented.
Canada has had ample opportunity to prove it is serious about reining in corporate abuse but has repeatedly failed to act — even in the face of serious crimes like forced labour, sexual violence, militarized evictions and targeted killings.
The international community is paying attention.
Even as Canada announces its early candidacy for the council, the country is in the spotlight with a new case filed at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights last week for its failure to provide justice and accountability for those on the front lines of defending human rights — the very thing it lists as a priority in its bid.
Canada ended its last term on the UN Human Rights Council in 2009, the same year prominent human rights and environment defender Mariano Abarca was killed in his hometown of Chicomuselo in Chiapas, Mexico.
Abarca was a leader in the social movement opposing the “Payback” barite mine owned by Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration and, like many other environmental leaders around the globe, faced threats and intimidation for speaking out about human rights violations and environmental harm tied to Canadian mining projects. Specifically, he spoke about the damage the company’s trucks were causing to neighbourhood homes and streets and the contamination of rivers whose headwaters are in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas.
In 2009, Abarca took these concerns straight to the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City, warning that armed company employees were intimidating him and others. Over 1,000 pages of internal embassy documents later obtained through access-to-information requests reveal that far from acting to support Abarca and using its diplomatic weight to speak out about a conflict involving a Canadian company, the embassy went out of its way to go to bat for the company, advocating with Mexican authorities to crack down on local protests and move the mine into production.
Weeks later, Abarca was shot and killed in front of his family restaurant. To date, there has been no credible investigation into his murder or any investigation into the role the Canadian embassy might have played in putting Abarca’s life at greater risk.
A 2018 complaint filed with the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner by Abarca’s family led nowhere; in spite of ample evidence documenting the close ties between the embassy and Blackfire, the commissioner refused to open even a cursory investigation. Subsequent appeals, including a 2023 Supreme Court of Canada ruling, have upheld this disappointing decision — forcing Abarca’s family to now turn to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
While horrific, what happened to Abarca is unfortunately not all that exceptional. In fact, ahead of the current UN Human Rights Council’s Periodic Review of Canada (the UN Human Rights Council conducts "reviews" of member countries every few years to see how they're upholding their international human rights commitments), corporate accountability experts sent a submission denouncing Canada for its continued diplomatic support of mining companies over the safety of human rights and environment defenders worldwide.
And while Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly claims to make justice and accountability a top priority for the UNHRC candidacy, paths for front-line defenders seeking justice in Canada are effectively non-existent.
Only nine lawsuits have been filed since 1997 in Canada against Canadian companies for abuse at their overseas operations. Two were settled, three were dismissed, three have spent over a decade inching through Ontario courts, and another was filed only recently.
Issues of “forum,” “piercing the corporate veil” — where companies argue they should not be held liable for their subsidiaries' actions — and prohibitive legal costs effectively close this door to almost everyone. Attempts to create a corporate watchdog have also been rendered ineffective. The Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) goes without powers to investigate allegations of abuse, relying on the goodwill of companies accused of serious human rights violations to voluntarily participate in her proceedings.
What tools does Joly expect to use to seek justice and accountability for front-line human rights defenders? To date, Canada has provided little leadership. But proposed mandatory human rights and environmental due diligence legislation, MP Peter Julian’s Bill C-262, offers some hope.
The bill would require companies to take action to prevent harm in the first place, make Canadian courts more accessible for people to seek redress and allow for government services — like embassy support — to be withdrawn from companies found to be committing human rights abuses. But for this proposed legislation to gain any traction, we need a strong cross-party political commitment that extends beyond lofty promises.
The vote for who gets to sit on the UN Human Rights Council is expected in 2026. Joly says Canada is a human rights champion. Now is the time to put those words into action.
José Luis Abarca is a Mexican lawyer and son of environment defender Mariano Abarca, a prominent community leader who was murdered in 2009 while speaking out against the Canadian mining company Blackfire Exploration.
Viviana Herrera is the Latin America program co-ordinator for MiningWatch Canada, working to hold Canadian mining companies to account for human rights abuses and environmental harms around the world.