Canadian mining company Ivanhoe Mines (now called Turquoise Hill Resources) lied publicly about its Myanmar joint venture selling copper to Burmese security forces, says a new report by Amnesty International. Ivanhoe Mines also used secrecy jurisdictions in the Caribbean to evade scrutiny over the sale of assets in Myanmar (Burma) and to dodge Canada’s economic sanctions against Myanmar at the time. A breach of these sanctions is a criminal offence.
Amnesty International began expressing concern and raising questions about Ivanhoe Mines’ business partnership with the Myanmar government over a decade ago. Because the company’s dealings were so opaque it wasn’t until a WikiLeaks revelation that Amnesty International researchers were able to gather sufficient information to demonstrate the company’s wrong doing and to substantiate our call for an investigation into Ivanhoe Mines’ operations in Myanmar.
In the mid-1990s, Ivanhoe Mines began a joint venture with the Myanmar government to mine copper in Monywa. In 2007, Ivanhoe Mines sold its 50% stake in the joint venture to an “independent” third party Trust, established by Ivanhoe in the British Virgin Islands and charged with finding a buyer for the Myanmar assets. Since 2010/2011, the Monywa project has been in the hands of a controversial Chinese-Myanmar military partnership. Ivanhoe Mines has never explained how this happened. Amnesty International received information supporting Wikileaks’ revelations that a well-known ‘crony’ of the Myanmar government was paid for negotiating this sale. Amnesty International also uncovered information that the third party Trust was not independent and that Ivanhoe Mines continued to have oversight of the Trust’s sale of the Myanmar assets. The sale occurred at a time when Canadian, US and EU economic sanctions applied to all dealings with the Myanmar military and its cronies.
Ivanhoe claimed in public filings with Canadian authorities that its joint venture sold all of the copper that it produced in Myanmar to a Japanese trading company. However, it turns out that the list of whom the joint venture actually sold the copper to reads like a who’s who of the Myanmar security forces and its establishments. Copper was sold to, amongst others, a number of military intelligence units and an organization suspected to be involved in several human rights abuses in Myanmar, including the crackdown on peaceful demonstrators and Buddhist monks and nuns during the Saffron Revolution in 2007 and an attack on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her supporters in 2003.
Unfortunately, these are not the only things that Ivanhoe did wrong while doing business in Myanmar. The company’s joint venture also left behind a toxic legacy of environmentally contaminated land and profited from the forced eviction of thousands of villagers, who did not receive any consultation, compensation or resettlement.
The situation does not appear to have improved in the years since Ivanhoe sold its interest in the project. In 2012 police threw white phosphorous “firebombs” at protestors at the mine site. More than 100 people were injured, some suffering horrific burns and lifelong disability. (White phosphorus is a highly toxic substance that spontaneously catches fire in air. Its use in civilian policing and against unarmed protestors is completely contrary to international law on the use of force and amounts to torture.) More recently, in December 2014 a woman was killed at a protest against the mine, and when 100 people gathered to protest her death a week later, the authorities arrested four human rights defenders. Residents living near the mine also continue to face the risk of forced evictions as well as health risks from a sulphuric acid factory that was built dangerously close to a village and school. Sadly this is the legacy of injustice that continues at the old Ivanhoe Mines joint venture site in Myanmar.
Foreign investment in the mining, oil and gas sector has the potential to bring social and economic benefits to the people of Myanmar; however, these industries also carry risks for human rights, in particular because they often require the expropriation of land and generate harmful waste materials.
It is therefore crucial that the Canadian government require Canadian mining, oil and gas companies operating overseas to conduct enhanced human rights due diligence, especially in regions where human rights and environmental laws (and enforcement of those laws) are lax. Without enhanced due diligence requirements in place Canadian companies face a high risk of causing or contributing to human rights abuses. The Canadian government must also take concrete steps to ensure that people who are harmed by Canadian companies overseas have the opportunity to seek justice in Canada through a mining ombudsperson and access to Canadian courts.