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Opinion

Business & human rights in Guinea: Urgent action needed by companies & government to avoid business involvement in abuse, improve contributions to transparency & poverty reduction

First appeared in French on AllAfrica

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We have just returned from a mission to Guinea, to learn about the impacts of business on human rights there. We found the country at a turning point. Legislative elections, delayed since 2007, finally took place late last year. President Alpha Condé, elected on a reformist agenda, has made anti-corruption and better governance of the giant mining sector his priorities, and put respected figures in some key posts. A government committee made its first recommendation on revisions and cancellations of government mining contracts while we were in Conakry. This recommendation is on reportedly the world’s largest untapped iron ore deposit. If rumours are right, it could transform the way big mining does business in Guinea. Observers say the military, while still a visible force, is less involved in politics and public life than in recent memory. We met with dynamic members of civil society, keen to engage with government and companies on the impacts of business on society. Symbols of business are everywhere: A G4S employee helps manage the line in an Orange mobile phone store – for those consumers who don’t choose MTN or any of the wide range of other carriers. A football pitch bears a proud sign stating that it is a gift to youth from mining firm Rusal.

But the challenges are enormous. Signs of poverty are everywhere too: Huge smoke-clouds rise from trash fires in slums. Unemployed youth sell water and trinkets on almost every street corner. Massive mining has clearly benefitted only a precious few. There are few tangible signs of shared prosperity such as improvements in woeful standards of health, education and other vital social needs. Legal norms often bear scant resemblance to the manner in which standards and disputes are actually dealt with, resulting in an entrenched culture of impunity. Ethnic tensions fuel suspicions of projects in areas where local communities feel neglected by the government. And powerful figures and institutions have deep-seated interests in preventing reform, or twisting it so that change serves them, not the people. Despite their best efforts, NGOs find it tough to tackle these challenges; but they could do far more with greater resources and expertise.

Guinea is one of the world’s biggest producers of bauxite (aluminium ore), and has many other minerals as well. The government has reformed the mining code for greater transparency and better environmental protections. A state technical committee is recommending changes to some contracts with mining companies that were concluded in secrecy, and that provide for royalty and other payments well below international good practice norms, depriving government of sorely needed revenues to improve dismal health, education and socioeconomic standards. It can recommend cancellation of contracts that it finds were signed through fraud, corruption, or other legal violations.

The reviews are important to restore sanity to the contracting process and ensure that resources that belong to the nation and should be used for national development are not given away: One contract, which was later terminated, granted exploration permits on almost 10% of the country’s territory to a single company, GDC Mining, Oil & Gas, which was jointly owned by China International Fund and Guinean investors reportedly linked to the former military government. Last week, the technical committee reached its conclusion on BSG Resources’ Simandou iron project, described as the world’s largest untapped iron-ore deposit. The committee has sent its conclusion to the company and will not announce it until BSG has had time to comment. But based on comments by President Condé and others that the committee has proof that BSG obtained the contract illegally and that there is strong evidence of corruption in the deal, observers expect the committee to recommend to cancel the contract. While civil society has broadly welcomed the process of contract reviews, it has called for greater clarity in the technical committee’s procedures, and the standards against which mining contracts are being reviewed and judged.

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative-Guinea told us of government efforts to come into compliance with international EITI requirements on publication of mining companies’ payments and government mining revenues. It has published years’ worth of reports in recent months to come up to date and is awaiting a decision on whether the steps taken suffice to bring it into compliance. Regardless of the international EITI decision, civil society including the Publish What You Pay Coalition-Guinea told us they welcomed the steps already taken, but called for much more robust and independent verification of both company and government data, including the quantities that companies extract each year.

The head of the anti-corruption and good governance agency told us he is keen to urge companies to join the UN Global Compact and abide by its ten principles on anti-corruption, human rights, labour and environment. Certain NGOs such as le Centre du Commerce International pour le Développement (CECIDE) are keen to reduce conflicts between companies and communities, for example by organising workshops to improve understanding on both sides and developing model compensation arrangements based on international principles – as well as ensuring that affected communities are aware of their rights.

Unfortunately human rights violations still occur with disturbing frequency. The judicial system fails to provide accountability, and the army still intervenes too frequently in internal matters, including against people who question companies’ operations. Soldiers killed at least five people in August 2012 in the village of Zogota, whose residents had protested their lack of employment opportunities at a nearby Vale mine; to date no one has been held accountable for the killings, according to the NGO Mêmes Droits Pour Tous. Fifty-seven people who opposed a project by the state-owned agribusiness SOGUIPAH, because they said it took their land without adequate compensation, were arrested, and many of their crops were razed. A special court was convened to speed their trial (while defendants in other cases languish in jail awaiting a hearing) and many were convicted. Soldiers also attacked the village with gunfire, including at the village chief, and reportedly raped one woman. Even if the courts functioned independently, the majority of the country would have next to no access to justice: Only six lawyers practice outside the Conakry region.

Workers’ rights are also a concern. We heard reports of employers, including a foreign-owned plastic goods factory in Conakry, that refuse to hire workers as employees in favour of short-term contracts to avoid having to provide legal protections, have unsafe working conditions – and often dismiss workers who are injured, without providing treatment or compensation.

The Friguia alumina refinery (owned by Rusal) is the largest in Africa, but it is has been shuttered for nearly two years due to prior neglect in upkeep, low aluminium prices, and a bitter fight between the company and the factory union. A strike by the union, ruled illegal by a labour tribunal, led to suspension of operations in early 2012, lock-out of workers by Rusal and non-payment of most wages since the strike began – although Rusal has made some payments to locked-out workers. Some unionists then occupied the plant and attempted to mothball it; Rusal states that they threatened expatriate employees and damaged plant machinery, and that expatriate workers were forced to flee. Rusal has kept the plant offline since, despite the union’s eventual accession to Rusal’s demands and agreement to suspend workers’ right to strike for several years; and despite the government’s agreement to Rusal’s demands for guarantees of security and incentives, including a new mining concession.

Suspended workers and their families told us how this has devastated the town of Fria, which depended entirely on the thousands of wage-earners at the plant and its contractors. The city has had near-total cuts in electricity for much of the period since early 2013, and recent outages in water supply. Rusal states that it has continued to provide water to Fria’s residents at the same levels as before the strike, except for a force majeure event that led to water outages for several days in December 2013, and has voluntarily supplied some electricity to the city. Many children have been unable to attend school because their families cannot pay school fees. Although Rusal has provided some food aid, residents have felt compelled to write to the World Food Programme

to request further assistance. At this point, the suspended workers told us, they have only two main demands: First, for Rusal to make a payment of half of back-wages that it committed to in January 2014. And second, for it to resolve their long-term contractual status -- they are currently locked out with their contracts suspended -- if Rusal will not reopen the plant, even by formally firing them if necessary so that they can receive mandated unemployment or retirement benefits, and some can move on to other jobs. Rusal, for its part, told us that the plant is not economic at current aluminium prices, but that it is seeking out technological improvements that would make it profitable. It pointed out that all of its actions since the strike was called were validated by a labour court decision last year. It did not address the issue of whether its demand for a moratorium on strikes was consistent with international labour rights standards.

Certain measures would signal concrete progress toward a goal of development and a corporate sector in Guinea that are more inclusive, transparent, and respectful of human rights. The government should urgently take steps:

  •  to improve the independence and capacity of the judiciary to ensure accountability for abuses involving companies;
  •  to improve transparency in the review of mining contracts and for independent verification of mining volumes and revenues, such as those urged by Publish What You Pay-Guinea; and
  •  to reduce or eliminate the military’s role in internal security.

Companies operating in Guinea and the government should consider formally joining the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights.

Companies operating in Guinea should ensure that they are applying the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, including by:

  •  adopting and implementing a human rights policy;
  • conducting transparent human rights impact assessments and taking their findings into account in operational decisions; and
  •  respecting the right to effective remedies, including by creating and implementing grievance mechanisms that comply with the criteria set forth in the Guiding Principles.

Foreign governments and intergovernmental organizations should link incentives in aid, trade and investment to respect for and protection of human rights in the business sector, and foster the development of civil society as a constructive and independent monitor.

Guinea is on the cusp of changing the course of its history. It has a chance to abandon violence and impunity as near-constant aspects of its politics, and to use its deep resources to raise its people out of misery. We look forward to tracking the conduct of companies and business alike in Guinea, and supporting all actors working toward greater corporate responsibility and more inclusive development.