Mining companies have to address multiple security challenges that are rooted in the complex environments in which they operate. These challenges may include ethnic conflicts, disputes between communities and indigenous peoples over natural resource management, violence committed by non-state armed actors, or poor socioeconomic conditions that can affect the security and productivity of the company’s operations.
In this context, the mining sector has traditionally sought to meet these challenges by deploying a variety of hard security measures, like armed security personnel. Unfortunately, where these measures are implemented, new risks often emerge. In particular, human rights risks can be caused by excessive use of force, violations of individual freedoms and, in extreme cases, gender-based violence.
In the last two decades, governments, investors, consumers and civil society organizations have pressed mining companies to ensure greater respect for human rights in their activities and relationships. As part of the government of Canada’s Enhanced Corporate Social Responsibility Strategy to Strengthen Canada’s Extractive Sector Abroad, companies are expected to commit to and implement the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights (VPSHR) in their operations abroad.
Furthermore, the Mining Association of Canada requires its members to implement the VPSHR for operations abroad.
This pressure has led mining companies to intensify their engagement with communities and to transform the management of their security operations. While many companies have now committed to the VPSHR, implementation often remains limited to human rights awareness activities given to security guards employed on sites. Human rights training is important, but it is by no means sufficient to fully implement the VPSHR.
VPSHR implementation implies greater transparency and proactive engagement with a variety of stakeholders, instead of simply focusing security efforts on building walls and using coercion. It requires that a company both share its expectations and use its leverage with host governments, including military and police forces, about the sensitive topic of human rights.
There are several ways for companies to increase their leverage, including capacity-building and training, local multi-stakeholder initiatives or committees that support VPSHR implementation, and updating contractual arrangements with public and private security forces. Nonetheless, without an effort to reconceptualize traditional definitions of security, these efforts may remain secondary to the overarching objective of safeguarding a company’s assets and personnel.
A transparent and inclusive approach to stakeholder engagement
Unless a company is committed to robust and ongoing engagement with stakeholders, VPSHR implementation may never go beyond the surface. Consulting all stakeholders effectively builds trust and allows a company to understand the sensitivities and dynamics of the local context, which can provide crucial information for the company’s security strategy.
The risk assessment and due diligence aspects of VPSHR implementation both require meaningful engagement. It can take time and perseverance to build a sufficient level of trust to discuss security and human rights in an open manner, especially with communities that are not used to being consulted. Multi-stakeholder dialogue and engagement activities can range from adapting a company’s grievance mechanisms to be used for security concerns raised by communities, to the design of an early warning system for local conflict.
Using leverage with host governments and public security forces
Clearly sharing expectations about human rights and developing agreements with host government forces are other challenges for VPSHR implementation. Many companies struggle to influence the security practices of public security forces.
VPSHR language can be inaccessible for local actors. Issues like the monitoring of force deployment, use of force and equipment transfers can easily be the subject of misunderstanding.
This explains why company agreements with public forces often treat these topics superficially.
It’s certainly not a company’s role to reform the public security forces of the country in which they operate. Nevertheless, companies must find ways to explain the VPSHR to host governments, including their benefit to all stakeholders. Addressing operational issues with potential impacts on human rights through security agreements can be a real opportunity for host governments. It can contribute to raising the profile of public forces. A company should constantly bring this forward while appealing to values such as “operational excellence.” In areas of arrangements are the principal way for a company to use its leverage and set goals that ultimately will enhance the company’s social licence to operate.
Reviewing the relationship with private security providers
In many cases, the decision to implement the VPSHR occurs while mining operations are already underway. Companies should then revisit the mandate and scope of contractual arrangements with private security providers. If the existing contract does not include the VPSHR, a company should consider an addendum that references the VPSHR, the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Providers (ICOC) and other relevant standards. Moreover, full co-operation by the private security provider on all aspects of VPSHR implementation should be required.
Defining security in a manner that includes human rights
For many mining companies, deepening their implementation of the VPSHR starts with the way they conceptualize security itself. Answering the question “what is security?” is often complex because security means different things to different people in different contexts. It involves thinking about security more broadly and in a manner that explicitly includes human rights.
This may seem contradictory to traditional approaches that are focused on the protection of company’s assets and personnel. Yet, having that discussion can help the company overcome the challenges posed in VPSHR implementation. It allows a company to use a definition of security that expands the type of security activities it will undertake to carry out its operations.
The level of effort to consult stakeholders – particularly those considered to be a threat to a company’s operation – will vary depending on whether security is perceived as a means or a goal. Companies will be less inclined to use their leverage capacity on host governments if they conceive security as a responsibility of the state rather than society. Similarly, if a company is more attached to the protective aspect of security than its preventive dimension, it may miss the urgency to revise the mandate and the scope of a private security provider.
By adopting a broader definition of security, a company ultimately gives itself more flexibility to implement the VPSHR.
Although a clear consensus regarding security doesn’t exist, there is no doubt that adopting an inclusive approach would facilitate the mining industry’s path to the crossroads between security and human rights – a crossroads that seemed improbable not so long ago.
KARIM-ANDRÉ LAZ is the senior advisor on Security for Human Rights for LKL International Consulting Inc. and assists extractive companies in implementing the VPSHR in their operations.
He has experience managing projects with police and military forces of countries around the world and is a former member of the Canadian Armed Forces.