BY: MITCHELL THOMPSON
The US State Department says that during this time, Myanmar “continued to be ruled by a highly authoritarian military regime widely condemned for its serious human rights abuses. The military Government, known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council headed by armed forces commander General Than Shwe and composed of top military officers, seized power in September 1988 after harshly suppressing massive pro democracy demonstrations.”
Canada introduced economic sanctions against Myanmar in 1997 in response to the brutal civil war during the country’s military rule that continued until 2011. Turquoise Hill opened a copper mine, with the assistance of the government, and as a result the local population suffered, while the company made huge profits.
The State Department says that during the time of Turquoise Hill’s operations in the country, “The Government’s severe repression of human rights increased … even as increased economic activity fostered the appearance of greater normalcy… citizens continued to live subject at any time and without appeal to the arbitrary and sometimes brutal dictates of the military dictatorship. Citizens do not have the right to change their government. There continued to be credible reports, particularly from ethnic minority-dominated areas, that soldiers committed serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killing and rape. Disappearances continued, and members of the security forces beat and otherwise abused detainees.”
In response to the government’s abuses, Canada’s sanctions against Myanmar prohibited imports, exports and investment, financial transactions and trade in arms and related material along with technical and financial assistance related to military activities, with some exceptions.
It’s fairly obvious that a business relationship with Myanmar’s government in the 1990s would have been highly unethical. But, the more interesting question is, was it legal? Should the CEO of Turquoise Hill, who oversaw the mining operation be in prison? And finally, is the Canadian Government obligated, under international law, to hold Turquoise Hill accountable?
Turquoise Hill says, in a 2010 press release, that it did not break the law because the Canadian Government’s sanctions “did not impose restraints on capital that is invested in Myanmar to help with the development of the country’s economy.”
Elizabeth Berton-Hunter from Amnesty doubts that Turquoise Hill’s mines qualified as development of the country, saying “there was so much pollution, eviction and livelihood costs, that there was no way the people in Myanmar could enjoy the benefits.” She says the company “acted in their own interests and that’s how they managed the mines.”
Berton-Hunter says that holding Turquoise Hill accountable for this is the Canadian government’s responsibility under the International Covenant on Education Social and Cultural rights. “While Myanmar wasn’t a signatory. Canada was and they had a responsibility to enforce those laws on Canadian companies.”
On Feb. 10, Amnesty wrote in a press release that Turquoise Hill knew its investment in Myanmar would lead to “thousands of people forcibly evicted in the 1990s without any compensation, in violation of international law.”
Berton-Hunter says the company knew what would happen to the evicted because Myanmar “had no process for resettlement or remuneration, they only realized what happened to them later on.”
Amnesty says the company then “profited from more than a decade of copper mining, carried out in partnership with Myanmar’s military government, without attempting to address the thousands left destitute.”
Turquoise Hill says that it started mining in Myanmar in 1992 and that in 1996, they claim that they spoke to the Canadian government, which did not instruct them to stop their mining operations in Myanmar. Because of these prior events, they say they did not break the law.
Berton-Hunter disagrees, because Canada “did have sanctions with Myanmar [in 1997] and Turquoise Hill did trade with the military, trading with the military itself is against the law,” according to the 1997 sanctions.
Amnesty says the company was involved “in the sale of copper to a ‘who’s-who’ of the Myanmar military. These sales took place when economic sanctions were still in force.”
Berton-Hunter says Amnesty spoke to foreign affairs about the report, who then contacted the RCMP. Neither the RCMP, nor foreign affairs could be reached for comment.
Amnesty says their report “underscores the crucial need for meaningful Canadian law and policy reforms to better ensure that Canadian companies uphold their human rights responsibilities, no matter where they explore, dig or drill.