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In 2014, three Eritrean men filed a civil lawsuit before the Supreme Court of British Columbia in Vancouver against Nevsun Resources Limited over the use of slave labour at Nevsun’s Bisha mine in Eritrea. Additional civil claims, with 86 more plaintiffs, were filed in 2016, 2017 and 2018. The case alleges that Nevsun engaged two Eritrean state-run contractors and the Eritrean military to build the mine’s facilities and that the companies and military deployed forced labour under abhorrent conditions. The case also alleges that Nevsun expressly or implicitly approved the use of conscripted labour, a practice alleged to be so widespread that it constitutes crimes against humanity. Nevsun, which owns a majority share of the Bisha mine, is headquartered in Vancouver and is incorporated under the laws of British Columbia.
The lawsuit advances ground-breaking claims based on the international law prohibitions on forced labour, slavery, torture and crimes against humanity. It is one of the first human rights lawsuits in Canada to assert claims based directly on international law.
According to the Notices of Civil Claim, conscripts were confined to the Bisha area, subjected to gruelling workdays and threatened with severe punishment if they left without authorization. They were allegedly made to survive on meagre rations and housed in deplorable conditions under a climate of constant fear and intimidation. In 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report, Hear No Evil, chronicling abuses related to Nevsun, state-run contractor Segen and the Bisha mine.
The lawsuit also alleges that Eritrea is a dictatorial, one-party state with one of the worst human rights records in the world, and that a policy of 18-month conscription for military or national service has been systematically abused to turn massive numbers of Eritreans into forced labourers. The case further alleges that Nevsun engaged a feared intelligence unit of the Eritrean military, whose members have been implicated in widespread torture, to provide security at the mine.
In October 2016, the Supreme Court of British Columbia rejected efforts by Nevsun to dismiss the lawsuit. This marked the first time that a mass tort claim for modern slavery will go forward in a Canadian court, and the first time a case against a mining company for alleged abuses in overseas operations has been allowed to proceed in British Columbia. The court rejected Nevsun’s position that the case should be dismissed in Canada and instead heard in Eritrea. In prevailing on this issue, the plaintiffs overcame an argument that has permitted other companies accused of abuses to have Canadian cases dismissed in favour of foreign courts. In another groundbreaking decision, the court determined that claims of crimes against humanity, slavery, forced labour and torture can go forward against Nevsun. It is the first time that a Canadian court has recognized that a corporation can be taken to trial for alleged violations of customary international law. The BC Court of Appeal upheld this judgment in 2017.
The Nevsun case followed the filing of a similar Vancouver lawsuit in June 2014 against Tahoe Resources for the shooting of protestors in Guatemala. The suit against Nevsun represents, along with three lawsuits against Hudbay Minerals, the fifth active case of its kind in Canadian courts, in addition to an action to enforce a multi-billion dollar judgment obtained in Ecuador against Chevron for environmental destruction, in which CCIJ intervened along with partner organizations.
The plaintiffs are supported in Canada by a legal team comprised of Vancouver law firm Camp Fiorante Matthews Mogerman (CFM), Ontario law firm Siskinds LLP and Toronto lawyer James Yap. The legal team has collaborated closely with London-based NGO Human Rights Concern Eritrea on this lawsuit.
If you or someone you know worked at the Bisha mine, or if you have any other relevant information, please complete an online information form or contact Denise Kinting by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: +1-800-7475-4637 or +1-519-672-2251 ext 2360. You can also visit the Facebook page.
Araya v. Nevsun Notice of Civil Claim, filed November 2014 (3 plaintiffs)
CBC Fifth Estate documentary, February 12, 2016: