My investigation in the Guardian:
Australian miners are making a killing overseas. With little regulation or oversight, billions of dollars are being made in some of the most remote places on Earth.
The necessity of partnering with autocratic regimes has proved no impediment to investment. Human rights have been breached. Victims are largely invisible.
None of this should be surprising. If Australian companies operating internationally are mentioned in the media, it appears in the business pages and discusses the strengths of a CEO or share price. Rio Tinto, for example, receives largely uncritical coverage despite in the 1980s the corporation facing serious allegations of human rights abuses around the world, including in Papua New Guinea.
Two American non-profit media organisations, the Centre for Public Integrity and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, recently bucked the trend and released a stunning report, Fatal Extraction, on Australian mining companies working in Africa (in which no allegations were made against Rio Tinto). How revealing that this research was led from America and not Australia itself.
The findings of the report, produced in collaboration with African journalists on the ground, were shocking.
From the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Malawi, grim details of death, maiming and police and army brutality were revealed.
A lead investigator on the report, Will Fitzgibbon, told the Guardian that while the response to the report was “positive”, there was also a sense that “Australia’s debate on corporate impacts and alleged violations overseas is much more limited than elsewhere. In Canada, for example, there have been lengthy parliamentary debates and deep media analyses of comparable allegations in a way that is yet to happen in Australia.”
I asked Fitzgibbon how these violations should be addressed in Australia. He said:
“The jury is still out on whether new laws are the most pressing response to this problem. Many argue that there’s a lot that can also be done in terms of company reporting to investors and of promoting voluntary and transparent application of international principles of business and human rights.”
Australia’s lack of interest in alleged corporate crimes in far-away places is related to a worrying incuriousness among reporters and politicians (the Greens are a key exception).
“There is a huge imbalance between Australia’s diplomatic and business interests in Africa. We still have one of the lowest numbers of embassies and high commissions in Africa among our peers yet we have mining companies, sometimes literally flying the Australian flag, in places like Burkina Faso, Niger, Madagascar and Zambia,” Fitzgibbon said.
Eritrea is one country that should be under the spotlight.
“The economy of Eritrea has experienced considerable growth in recent years,” explains the website for Australian mining company Danakali. The Perth-based firm, which until recently was known as South Boulder Mines, has partnered with the Eritrean National Mining Company to develop a massive potassium-bearing salts deposit around 350km from the country’s capital, Asmara.
Danakali’s managing director Paul Donaldson said, “The Danakil region of East Africa is recognised as an emerging potash [potassium salts] province, and to date over 10bn tonnes of potassium bearing salts have been identified.”
Online intelligence magazine Geeska Afrika explained: “Eritrea has many benefits it can offer potential investors. It has a safe and stable government with an educated and disciplined work force.”
Absent from all the propaganda was any mention of Eritrea as one of the most repressive nations in the world. A UN report in June detailed horrific allegations of abuse committed by the regime. Human Rights Watch argued that “this authoritative report rightly condemns the horrific patterns of torture, arbitrary detention, and indefinite conscription that are prompting so many Eritreans to flee their country”. A sizeable majority of refugees leaving Eritrea and attempting to reach Europe are fleeing from this regime. I’ve met many Eritreans in South Sudan who prefer to live in a war zone than under the Eritrean dictatorship.
Danakali has been engaged in Eritrea since at least 2013. An independent Eritrean media outlet had accused the company of benefitting from forced labour. I can find no public response from the company about the country’s human rights record and the unavoidable ethical issues that arise from partnering with an autocracy. They have not responded to requests for comment.
Apart from a major Eritrean rebel group this year warning the firm to stay away due to environmental concerns and allegations that the indigenous Afar community was being pushed off its lands to make way for the development, the Australian company has not faced any serious questions over its work in Eritrea.
Australia has an inglorious history of turning a blind eye to profitable bad behaviour. Although the Australian Wheat Board paid kickbacks to the Saddam Hussein regime in the 1990s and early 2000s for favourable contracts, lengthy legal wrangling resulted in few significant scalps.
With only one journalist working for an Australian media organisation permanently based in Africa, ABC’s Martin Cuddihy in Kenya, the continent is easily ignored or dismissed. South America is even more woefully unrepresented. Finding stories of Australian corporate malfeasance on either continent requires expensive and time-consuming work.
Of course this is not just a problem facing Australia. The Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York has been pushing the United Nations for years to end the impunity enjoyed by American and European firms operating in developing states. The US Supreme Court has increasingly accepted arguments from multinationals that they have no responsibility for human rights abuses in the countries in which they operate.
I’ve spoken to senior human rights lawyers in Australia who say it’s also incredibly tough to pursue a successful case against a mining giant through the Australian courts. The people of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea have been waiting for decades for any compensation from the Rio Tinto-owned mine that caused a brutal, decades-long civil war.
Australia sells itself as a nation that can teach the world about responsible mining – Afghanistan is one willing student – but the record suggests our corporations have a callous disregard for the rights of civilians.