While Barrick Gold “Pleases” Some Rape Survivors, It Continues To Abuse Human Rights

Let me set the scene: About 600km from Port Moresby in the province of Enga, Papua New Guinea, a 14 year-old girl makes her way through the remote dumps of the Porgera Valley mine. By panning for gold, her hope is to find enough so that she can afford to go to school. A school that will soon unwelcome her as a consequence of being raped by a security guard at that very mine site that fateful day.

Although each individual’s story is different, this has been the tragedy for too many women and girls in Porgera. The tragedy of systematic rape and gang rape at the hands of mining employees, and the social and familial ostracization that follows.

On Friday, a settlement was struck between Canada’s Barrick Gold Corporation and EarthRights International (ERI) concerning the alleged violence and assault, including rape, of 14 survivors in Porgera. Eleven of the survivors were women, and there are at least 120 other women (including an 86 year-old woman) and girls who were also raped at the Porgera mine but who sit outside of this settlement. “Our clients are pleased with their outcome,” human rights attorney Michelle Harrison from ERI told SheRa Mag, “but there a lot of people in the Porgera Valley who don’t feel that way.”

Barrick Gold is one of the largest gold mining companies in the world and have faced complaints about systematic rape for over five years. Barrick finally acknowledged that rape at Porgera was a problem and in 2012 created the Porgera Remedy Framework, a process organized by the company to hear claims involving sexual violence and settle them non-judicially.

Many of the rape survivors accepted Barrick’s remedy package, a streamlined package which consisted of “business training,” a “business grant,” and a “financial supplement,” all of which amounted to about USD $8,500. This package was offered in exchange for the victim’s legal rights—a promise never to sue Barrick.

Eleven of the female victims, all of whom were represented by ERI, however, refused the package, deeming it “inadequate and, in fact, even offensive, compared to the harms that they’d endured,” Harrison said.

While the terms of the settlement agreed upon between ERI and Barrick last week remain undisclosed, considering that the matter was settled so quickly out of court—contrary to ERI’s original expectations of the case—and that ERI’s 14 clients are “pleased with the resolution” as stated in their press release and again echoed by Harrison, it is reasonable to assume that they have scored a whole lot more than those who agreed to the original remedy package totalling just $8,500.

“There would be no reason to maintain a link to ERI as their lawyers if they were willing to accept what Barrick was offering all the other women—then they would have just accepted that—but they weren’t. And so it’s very clear that what Barrick is offering these women now is going to be a great deal better than what the other women received,” anthropologist and activist Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada told SheRa Mag. 

And while Coumans rejoiced in the win for ERI’s 14 clients, she remains deeply critical of Barrick’s non-judicial Remedy Framework mechanism: “This throws the whole process into doubt because the women who did hold out (and who had access to independent legal representation) and did not settle for the remedial package they were being offered are going to receive what they want. Whereas the other women are going to have to accept what they were given.” Many of the victims, Coumans explains, simply couldn’t wait, “because they were desperate for medical attention, or because they were desperate for any kind of relief, they signed, even though they weren’t particularly happy with what the package offered.”

While ERI have been heroic in assisting and representing as many of the survivors as they could, they weren’t able to reach all of the women and girls affected by sexual violence in Porgera. And even some of the women that they did work with, in many cases due to desperation, still chose to accept the package.

Barrick claims to have brought in an independent lawyer to advise the victims and council them through the framework process. However, as Coumans comments with scepticism, “it’s somebody the company brought in… So who knows…?!” When reflecting on the outcomes awarded to the “lucky few,” who were represented by ERI, Coumans poses the question, “Why shouldn’t all of the women been given the opportunity to have had independent legal representation, and to actually have their cases looked at individually, not all getting roughly the same amount of money and small other things around that?”

Barrick was one of the first international corporations to jump on the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs)—an effort to create global human rights standards for businesses—which, in its third pillar, outlines that businesses should implement “access to remedy for victims of business-related abuses.”

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Catherine Coumans interviews Porgera rape victims (source: miningwatch.ca)

“Barrick was sitting on a huge legal liability knowing that it had literally hundreds of women who’d been raped and gang raped at its mine sites,” says Coumans who has herself been to Porgera and interviewed many of the victims first hand. “But, in fact, UNGP really wasn’t envisioned to be used for such egregious crimes.” She asserts that settling a dispute that involves one person backing their truck into someone else’s vehicle—a case appropriate for a non-judicial process—is a far cry from a rape case.

While Barrick chose not to participate in an interview with SheRa Mag, we did receive an email from its Vice President Andy Lloyd stating that: “Sexual assault is a deplorable act under any circumstances and it goes against everything we believe in as a company. We believe we have acted decisively to address the issue of sexual assault at the Porgera Joint Venture, both to remedy past harms and to help prevent such incidents from happening again.”

While this statement seems adequate enough, it doesn’t address Barrick’s failure to consult and address each victim and their claims on an individual basis, its meagre remedy offering (which originally consisted of second-hand clothes and baby chickens!), or that the package was only offered in exchange for legal immunity.

Since Barrick’s Remedial Framework has now “ended” in Porgera and only addressed claims that allegedly happened before its stated end date (strange when the mine is still in full swing and presumably continues to effect the local community surrounding it), we were lead to reply to Lloyd’s email by asking, “Can you explain why your Remedial Framework has ended and how you intend on dealing with the claims that occur outside of the frameworks dates?” His reply: “All known claims (90%) have been resolved, with the exception of the cases represented by Earth Rights. And we have been in dialogue with Earth Rights for some time on how we can address the concerns of their clients.”

Again, this is well and good for the clients of Earth Rights, all of whom have since had their claims resolved and are “pleased” with the outcome. But the other “90%” of “all known claims” he refers to are the ones that signed away their legal rights in exchange for a modest remedial package. Hard to imagine those people are exactly “pleased.” And what of the other 10% of claims that are by implication unresolved? And the victims who were (or will be) assaulted or raped by Barrick employees outside of the Remedial Framework timeline?

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Women pan for gold at the Porgera mine dumps (source: porgeraalliance.net)

There’s a Community Grievance Office, which is located within the mine and is supposed to be a place where community members who have complaints against the company can voice them. However, Harris told SheRa Mag, “we have attempted to utilize this mechanism, along with our partners on the ground there, but I’ve seen nothing to indicate that it’s capable of creating a meaningful remedy in a human rights case.”

Asserting that the legal rights waiver is one of the most problematic functions of Barrick’s Remedial Framework, and that this was one of Barrick’s “add ons,” not a component of the original UNGP document, Coumins says, “the company is literally trading remedy for legal immunity. They’re turning remedy into a transaction of human value. But within human rights law, it is the company’s obligation to provide remedy to the person they have harmed, not to provide remedy but only if they get something in return, like legal immunity.”

While 14 survivors of rape and violence in Porgera were fortunate enough to have had their wants heard, and, with the assistance of independent human rights representation, evidently got what they wanted, the remaining survivors are left to settle with much less, if anything. It is clear that the Porgera Valley mine is riddled with complications which prove highly problematic for the communities that reside around it. While Barrick Gold Corporation was able to satisfy 14 people who had been horribly affected by its employees, a probable hundreds of others remain unquenched, and in some cases, devastated. Barrick’s Remedy Framework mechanism has much to answer for in as far as human rights practices and accountability are concerned.

Main image courtesy of globalresearch.ca

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