In late October, parliament voted against adopting Bill C-300, which would have provided some level of human rights accountability for Canadian mining (and oil and gas) companies operating beyond Canadian borders. The bill, originally introduced by Liberal MP John McKay, was defeated 140-134 by the votes of a unanimously opposed Conservative party, and supported by the absence of numerous Liberal party members. Among those who chose not to appear was Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff.
The bill had passed two earlier Parliamentary votes. Most believe that the vote was a result of aggressive, last-minute lobbying from industry representatives, who claimed that firms (read “they themselves”) would be driven to incorporate elsewhere were the bill to become law.
What drastic measures would the law have imposed were a Canadian company involved in a ‘violation of international human rights standards’? As put concisely by Canadian Business Magazine, the project in question “…would become ineligible to receive financial services from EDC, and the Canada Pension Plan could no longer invest in [the Corporation's] securities.”
There may have been problems with the administrative scheme set up under the Bill, shortcomings which could have been overcome if more MPs had taken an interest in rendering the bill workable. One would expect that kind of effort from a party, and a leader, which have made their name promoting human rights values. Their decision can hardly be called disappointing, however, since that would require the result to be out of character. In practice, Ignatieff has made an art of supporting those values while undercutting the rights themselves.
How is it possible that human rights protection, seen as trumps in Canadian law, fell so easily to the wayside when it came to regulating business practice? Chris Brown, an international relations professor at LSE, has put the matter plainly: “The enforcement of rights by the international community has been determined, in practice, by the foreign-policy imperatives of the major powers, and political, commercial and financial considerations frequently get in the way of a high-priority, even-handed policy on human rights.”
The vote on C-300 draws that lesson squarely, but also sharpens the edge of its rule: in buying into a standard for the protection of human rights, even middle powers don’t feel that they can afford to pay for more than lip service.
Refs: Chris Brown, “Universal Human Rights? An Analysis of the ’Human-Rights Culture’ and its Critics” in Robert G Patman, ed, Universal Human Rights? (Houndmills [England]: Macmillan Press, 2000) 31, at 40