Canadian company before Supreme Court of Canada in major corporate accountability case

On January 23, an important legal case against Nevsun Resources will be heard before the Supreme Court of Canada.

In 2014, three Eritrean men filed a claim against Nevsun seeking accountability for disturbing human rights abuses -including allegations of torture and forced labour – during the construction of the company’s gold and copper mine in Bisha, Eritrea. According to documents filed in the BC court, the company had prior knowledge of the country’s National Service Program and understood the likelihood that its business relationships would involve the use of conscripted labour. The United Nations has said that the widespread use of forced labour in the country may constitute a crime against humanity.

The plaintiffs are asking Canadian courts to hold Nevsun accountable for benefitting from violations of their human rights. Bringing these crimes to justice is vital because impunity only fuels the belief that those responsible for corporate crimes are untouchable.

For more than a decade, human rights defenders and their civil society partners in Canada have brought case after case before Parliament, in which defenders have outlined the human rights abuses they experienced in the context of Canadian mining operations.

In 2018, the federal government was forced to respond to this crisis: it announced the establishment of an Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise to investigate such complaints and hold corporate actors to account. But we’re not there yet. One year on, Canada has yet to establish the Ombudsperson and Canadian courts have yet to hold a mining company accountable for human rights abuses at any Canadian overseas mine. There are two more civil lawsuits currently before Canadian courts for human rights abuses at Canadian mines in Guatemala.

On Wednesday, Nevsun will make three arguments to the Supreme Court of Canada in its attempt to have the case against it overturned: it will claim that Canada does not have jurisdiction to rule on the validity of the acts of sovereign, foreign governments within their own territory. In other words, Nevsun will argue that Canada has no right to rule on the validity of Eritrea’s national service program.  

It will also argue that Canadian courts should not be able to regulate Canadian corporate actions abroad when those companies are in partnership with foreign governments. Finally, it will argue that Canadian courts should not apply international law principles to private actors, like companies; only States should be subject to international law principles.

However, the Eritrean government isn’t on trial in Ottawa this week: Nevsun is. And Amnesty believes that corporate actors should not be able to dodge accountability for their part in human rights abuse allegations by using procedural manoeuvers such as the ones Nevsun has put forward. 

Amnesty International will be in court tomorrow as an expert intervener in the proceedings. Please check back for our analysis and further action.  

Read our press statement >>here. You can also read our Factum.

Read our blog post >>here

Join our Campaign Briefing on the Nevsun case on Tuesday, January 29th at 7:30 pm Eastern/4:30 pm Pacific by registering >>here.

Further Reading:


Eritrea’s National Service program obliges young Eritreans to participate in 6 months of military training and 12 months of military deployment or government service. In 2002, the government extended the 18-month service period – with little to no pay- to an indefinite period of time, although the government promised in 2014 to end indefinite national service. There is no evidence it has done so, nor that it has demobilized those already in the national service for more than 18 months.

The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Eritrea noted that many national service conscripts lack adequate food, shelter, water, hygienic facilities, and medical services. Young people who try to evade or desert from Eritrea’s national service program often find themselves facing arrest and arbitrary detention; some are captured, punished and sent for military training. Those detained do not have access to lawyers or family members during their incarceration.

Amnesty calls on the Eritrean government to demobilize national service conscripts who have served more than 18 months of service and provide reparations, including compensation proportionate to excess time served. We also call on Eritrea to end the practice of assigning National Service conscripts as labour to private companies. Finally, we call on the government of Eritrea to ensure conscripts are provided with accommodations and conditions which comply with international human rights standards, guaranteeing their rights to food, water, adequate housing and the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.