Politics of Poverty

Social conflict, extractive industries, national human rights institutions and most importantly…communities

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Oxfam releases framework to judge the effectiveness of national human rights institutions

Oxfam America’s Extractive Industries Team today released new research:

Human Rights and Social Conflict in the Oil, Gas, and Mining Industries: Policy recommendations for national human rights institutions.

Let me try to break down what the paper is all about.

Godfried Ofori, of the Concerned Citizens Association of Prestea, stands in front of a mine pit and waste dump area near Golden Star Resources mine in southwest Ghana. Photo: Jane Hahn / Oxfam America

What do we mean by social conflict?

More than 500 protesters took to the streets in Prestea in the western region of Ghana in 2005 to demonstrate against Bogoso Gold Mines (a subsidiary of Golden Star Resources), resulting in injuries to seven protesters. Tensions grew as a result of alleged water pollution and damage to homes from mining explosives and eventually led to project suspension.

Social conflicts and controversies surrounding large-scale oil and mining projects often stem from concerns around potential or actual environmental impacts and land acquisition disputes, and sometimes erupt into violence. Past Oxfam blogs have highlighted examples of this in countries where we work like Peru and Ghana.

Oxfam America’s recommendations for companies and government agencies charged with managing the oil and mining industries primarily aim to increase community participation in decision making around projects, and ultimately at preventing social conflicts. National human rights institutions (NHRIs) represented one interesting policy avenue that we had yet to address.

What do we mean by a national human rights institution?

State-sponsored NHRIs–tasked with protecting and promoting human rights– have grown in popularity in recent decades. To date, the UN International Coordinating Committee on NHRIs has accredited 99 of these institutions globally. The closest equivalent agency in the US would likely be the US Commission on Civil Rights, which is tasked with informing national civil rights policy and studying alleged deprivations of voting rights and discrimination.

While NHRIs take on a diversity of forms and functions, they will often provide human rights education, hear human rights complaints, mediate complaint resolution, and/or enforce remedies. Some of these institutions are charged with a narrow mandate to protect the human rights of particular groups (e.g., minorities or persons with disabilities) or to protect particular rights (e.g., anti-discrimination), while others have a broad mandate to protect and promote all human rights for all persons. Some NHRIs, like Ghana’s, have a formal mandate to investigate complaints about human rights abuses by private entities, including businesses, while others do not.

In the context of the extractive industries, NHRIs may be called on to address a wide range of human rights abuses. These could include, for example, impacts on the right to property such as by forced displacement or damage to crops or houses, or violence directed at local communities by police or security forces.

How can NHRIs better address social conflicts related to extractive industries?

The new Oxfam research launched in Washington, DC today presents a framework for evaluating NHRIs’ impact on promoting and protecting human rights in the context of the extractive industries, and how this framework can be applied in individual country contexts. The research identifies five categories of determinants for NHRI effectiveness: independence, power, promotion, empowerment, and remediation. These were based on a growing body of literature on effectiveness factors for NHRIs, and then prioritized based on the unique features of oil and mining projects, e.g. their long-term, large-scale nature and their tendency to impact remote and marginalized communities.

An open pit mine in the town of Prestea, Ghana, where Oxfam parter organization, WACAM, has been supporting the Concerned Citizens Association of Prestea in its efforts to negotiate with a mining company around issues related to air and water pollution, and the proposed expansion of mining operations. Photo: Jeff Deutsch / Oxfam America

The research includes a case study on Ghana’s NHRI, the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ). Based on a literature review and interviews with civil society leaders, mining industry representatives, and CHRAJ officials in Ghana, researchers applied their new framework with CHRAJ to come up with recommendations to strengthen its effectiveness in the mining and emerging oil sectors. Results indicate that CHRAJ should develop a systematic and targeted strategy for communicating with communities affected by oil, gas, and mining operations. Information provided by CHRAJ should ideally provide community members with a clear understanding of their rights, how extractive projects may violate them, and how to seek remedy if these rights are violated.


Why should NHRIs engage more with communities?

While the new framework for evaluating NHRI effectiveness will generate different results based on differing country contexts, the finding in the Ghanaian context that community engagement should be a key priority for NHRIs will likely resonate in many of the countries that experience human rights abuses and conflict around mining and oil projects. Often the complex impacts of extractive projects are difficult for community members to anticipate or respond to, particularly when they involve politically-charged issues such as resettlement or technical issues such as water pollution from mine runoff. When NHRIs engage with more informed and active communities, they will find their education and enforcement mandates much easier to fulfill.

If more NHRIs begin to effectively and proactively engage with project-affected communities in preventing human rights abuses and conflict, not only local communities and host governments will benefit. The global community will also benefit from the subsequent increase in stability around the extraction of the oil and mineral resources on which we all rely.

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