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Mining: When will the scandals stop?

By Jeremy Hobbs - posted Saturday, 15 July 2000

The latest revelation of sexual abuses against local women and female employees at Rio Tinto's Kelian gold mine in Indonesia, clearly demonstrates the social and environmental problems Australian mining companies continue to create in our region.

An investigative team led by the National Human Rights Commission in Indonesia recently released a report that alleges 16 cases of sexual abuse at Rio Tinto's Kelian mine. Some of the victims were under-age and the majority of the abuses, according to the report, are alleged to be due to the actions of an Australian who was the mine manager at the time.

This comes hot on the heels of BHP's admission that it had created a worse environmental disaster than it realised at OK Tedi, the massive cyanide spill at an Australian-owned Esmerelda mine in Romania, and another company in Papua New Guinea accidentally dropping cyanide pellets from a helicopter. Community Aid Abroad - Oxfam Australia is aware of serious complaints levelled at several other Australian-run mines in the region, which we are currently investigating.


Apart from the effect of these incidents on Australia's reputation in the region, they amount to a violation of the basic rights of poor and often vulnerable people - their right to clean water, a safe environment, and protection from harassment and violence.

Yet in a recent newsletter, Minerals Council of Australia executive director Dick Wells opposes the introduction of legislation to govern industry standards offshore. He suggests we should instead rely on voluntary codes of conduct, and in particular the Mineral Council's own Code for Environmental Management. Its strength, Dick Wells says, "lies in the fact that companies volunteer to commit within a framework of principles, and can choose to implement the Code in a way that is appropriate to their operations and their environments. The Code works because it gives the industry flexibility to choose how it goes about achieving excellence in environmental behavior."

Instead of insisting that mining companies comply with internationally accepted standards on the environment, human rights and the rights of women, Mr Wells advocates that companies reform in their own time and in their own way, with no sanction for non-compliance.

Without sanctions, voluntary codes, far from being a genuine and serious attempt to solve real problems, are simply a means of damage control by an industry struggling to change.

BHP, operator of the notorious Ok Tedi mine in PNG, is a signatory to the Minerals Council's Environment Code. BHP also has its own "Guide to Business Conduct," which states: "It is BHP's policy to achieve a high standard of environmental care" and to "apply standards that minimise any adverse environmental impacts resulting from its operations, products and services".

Rio Tinto's statement of business practice, called "The Way We Work," says: "Rio Tinto supports and protects the dignity, well-being and rights of those with whom it is directly involved: its employees and their families, and the local communities which are neighbours of its operation. .. Employees will be provided with good and safe conditions of work. Employees will be protected to the best of the company's ability against harassment in the work place".


While we acknowledge the genuine attempt by some industry leaders to improve performance - Rio Tinto deserves credit for agreeing to the Human Rights Commission inquiry - an immense gap remains between industry rhetoric and practice. Bridging this gap will require the Australian Government to introduce legislation that sets standards for Australian-based mining companies operating overseas, monitors performance and, where possible, imposes sanctions for non- compliance. A precedent exists in Australian law - Australians can now be prosecuted for child-sex offences committed overseas.

In addition, an independent complaints mechanism is needed with the capacity to fully investigate the grievances of mine-affected communities overseas. In the absence of any commitment by the industry or government to establish such a mechanism, Community Aid Abroad - Oxfam Australia earlier this year established its own Mining Ombudsman. This is a responsibility that properly belongs to the Australian mining industry and one it should now accept in light of the latest revelations.

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About the Author

Jeremy Hobbs is executive director of Community Aid Abroad - Oxfam Australia.

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