As representatives of the Mexican Network of Mining-Affected People (REMA) and family members of the Chiapas-based human rights defender Mariano Abarca, we travelled to Canada this week to announce that we filed a complaint against Canada before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The complaint, filed in collaboration with two Canadian organizations – the Justice and Corporate Accountability Project (JCAP) and MiningWatch Canada – centers around the Canadian Embassy in Mexico, whose acts and omissions heightened the risk Mariano Abarca faced in the lead-up to his murder on November 29, 2009.
This petition is the first complaint filed before the IACHR to challenge Canada’s practice of “economic diplomacy,” a government strategy that directs Canada’s diplomatic corps to “attend to the needs of” Canadian companies abroad. In practice, this strategy is carried out without consideration for the significant harm these same investments cause in host countries or the violence caused in their wake. “Economic diplomacy” is a mechanism through which Canadian companies can exert corporate pressure through the actions of Canadian officials. The case of Mariano Abarca, as outlined in the complaint before the IACHR and in the 2017 petition filed against Mexico, is fundamental for understanding the gravity of this corporate strategy, particularly given the escalation of violence in Chiapas and other areas of the country which heightens the risks faced by people protecting their lands from mining.
Mariano Abarca was the founder of REMA and father of two daughters and two sons. In 2008, he began to organize alongside Otros Mundos Chiapas and other environment defenders in the town of Chicomuselo (Chiapas) to prevent the Canadian mining company Blackfire Exploration from continuing to contaminate his community’s water and land through its barite mining operations.
Even before Blackfire put its mine into operation, the Embassy was aware of local discontent against the company and knew about the risks Mariano faced in opposing the project. In July 2009, Mariano travelled to Mexico City with colleagues from Chicomuselo and other allies to demonstrate in front of the Canadian Embassy and denounce what was taking place around Blackfire’s mine. Once there, they spoke publicly about the mine’s harmful environmental and social impacts, and spoke out about the threats they had received for their organizing efforts. Our Canadian allies obtained documents through access to information requests which reveal that the Embassy had very detailed information about the situation. The company considered the Embassy’s support essential in getting the mine up and running and for continuing operations despite local opposition.
Before filing our 2023 complaint against Canada at the IACHR, we first brought a complaint to Canada’s Public Service Integrity Commissioner (PSIC) in 2018. However, we encountered a complete lack of willingness on the part of the Commissioner to investigate this case and treat it seriously – treating it with the same disregard we have encountered in Mexico, where we live in a context of total impunity for companies and their backers. Contrary to the Canadian government’s discourse on human rights and corporate social responsibility, our unsuccessful efforts to seek justice in Canada highlight the Canadian government’s singular focus in promoting and protecting Canadian investment over people. When we took the case to the Federal Court of Appeals, the Canadian government “defended” itself by arguing that its commitments to the lives of human rights defenders are not binding. The lack of seriousness and depth with which this case has been treated reveals, moreover, a colonial attitude of contempt and lack of respect for those who suffer the harm of the mining industry, prioritizing the enrichment of a few businessmen at the expense of life and nature.
Months after we filed our 2018 complaint, the Commissioner decided to not open an investigation on the grounds that Canada’s Corporate Social Responsibility policies, statements by government representatives, and commitments to the UN made by Canada regarding the protection of human rights defenders "are not official policies of the Government of Canada" and "do not appear to dictate specific actions that the Embassy should or should not have taken at the relevant time." The Embassy, the Commissioner argued, was not obliged to follow these policies and no investigation was warranted.
This decision was upheld by subsequent court rulings, including the Federal Court of Appeals. In their rulings, the courts made almost no reference to the evidence we had provided. However, Federal Judge Boswell admitted: "Undoubtedly, the Applicants would have liked the Embassy to have acted in a certain way, and [had it done so] perhaps Mr. Abarca would not have been murdered."
Three organizations intervened at the Federal Court of Appeal: Amnesty International Canada, Canadian Lawyers for International Human Rights (CLAIHR) together with the International Justice and Human Rights Clinic at the University of British Columbia, and the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University (now named Toronto Metropolitan University). They made the argument that Canada has an obligation to uphold international law and to investigate and ensure effective remedy. The intervenors also underscored how the lack of investigation could undermine public confidence in the public administration. None of these arguments, however, were taken into account.
In the end, the Supreme Court of Canada did not grant our request for a review of the case – despite its importance to communities and organizations that are defending life in the face of dispossession and environmental destruction, and despite the fact that hundreds of Canadian mining companies are operating around the world, posing an increasing danger to those who oppose these projects.
Today, after exhausting the few and inadequate mechanisms available in Canada, we turn to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to open a path towards justice, remediation and, above all, fundamental changes to the model of resource extraction that Canada exports to the world.
Considering the current conditions of extreme violence in Mexico, and in the face of ongoing harm that always accompanies mining operations, Canada must stop lending its diplomatic support to service corporate greed that plunders and kills us here in Mexico and other parts of the world. We expect this complaint against Canada filed at the IACHR to demonstrate the gravity of this corporate strategy, in order to establish a precedent for the responsibility of governments, such as Canada, in promoting, sheltering and aiding and abetting their corporations. Canada is far from the only case. We therefore call on the government of Mexico to move towards redress and justice in this case, as outlined in our 2017 petition filed against Mexico at the IACHR, updated in 2020.
Stop the impunity for mining companies’ crimes in Canada and Mexico!
Stop the colonialist economic diplomacy of the Canadian government!
Justice for Mariano Abarca and all those who have lost their lives defending their territory!
– Mexican Network of Mining-Affected People (REMA)