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Updated Mar 3, 2020

Damages claims brought by three Eritrean refugees against the Vancouver-based mining firm Nevsun, which operates the Bisha copper, zinc, and gold mine in Eritrea, will be allowed to go through, following a vote by the Canadian Supreme Court on Friday, February 28, 2020. The plaintiffs allege that they and hundreds of others were conscripted by the Eritrean military to work at the mine from 2008 to 2012 and were subjected to slave-like conditions, which included twelve-hour workdays and beatings. The Supreme Court’s decision is a landmark in international human rights law, as it effectively subjects Canadian multinationals operating abroad to Canadian jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court did not assess the merits of the case, but only had to decide whether the case could proceed to trial. Nevsun argued it should be dismissed under the act-of-state doctrine, a principle in British and US law that holds that the courts of one country will not sit in judgment on the acts of the government of another country in its own territory. The Supreme Court said this doctrine does not apply in Canada. The Eritreans may now sue for damages at a British Columbia court.


Why It Matters

In their decision, the Canadian justices ruled that tenets of international human rights laws known as “peremptory norms” must be protected and that violations should be strongly discouraged. This case was closely watched by other members of Canada’s mining industries, and may discourage operations in countries with weak to non-existent workers’ rights laws. This decision sets a precedent that lays the groundwork for future court cases, conferring greater enforcement authority for international laws and stronger labor protections for workers contracted under multinational firms. The ruling may incentivize countries that are dependent on the mining sector to pass legislation to protect laborers if they want to attract foreign investment, because mining companies will be seeking to avoid potential lawsuits.

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