Eritreans' case against Nevsun can proceed in Canada

“There is a real risk that the plaintiffs could not be provided with justice in Eritrea," said Justice Patrice Abrioux in a ruling that allows three refugees to proceed with a civil lawsuit against Vancouver-based Nevsun Resources.

In an unprecedented decision, the British Columbia Supreme Court rejected the miner’s request to dismiss the case and allow it to proceed in the African country. “Canadian courts have jurisdiction to try Canadian companies for alleged criminal acts that occurred in other countries, but have been reluctant to do so,” says Nelson Bennett of Business in Vancouver.

According to the Canadian Centre for International Justice, it is also the first time a Canadian court recognizes that a corporation can be taken to trial for alleged violations of customary international law.

The plaintiffs, who are former Eritrean conscripts, filed a lawsuit in B.C.'s Supreme Court in November of 2014, accusing Nevsun of being "an accomplice to the use of forced labour, crimes against humanity and other human rights abuses at the Bisha mine.”

In detail, their notice of civil claim states that employees at the gold-copper-zinc mine “were subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as well as harsh working conditions including long hours, malnutrition and forced confinement for little pay. They worked under the constant threat of physical punishment, torture and imprisonment.”

If Nevsun loses at trial, the company could be forced to pay compensation for "severe physical and mental pain and suffering."

Reports by Reuters say that the men’s affidavits also state that, as conscripts in the country's national service system, they were forced to work at Bisha, although not for Nevsun directly but for government-owned construction firms subcontracted to build the mine.

The company, however, has denied all allegations saying they its indirect 60%-owned Eritrean subsidiary, Bisha Mining Share Company, responds to contractual commitments that prohibit the use of national service employees by its contractors and subcontractors.

Nevsun also said it is studying the ruling and considering an appeal of the decision that the action can proceed at all.

For now, the miner was able to accomplish a small victory as the judge granted its application asking the court to find that the case could not continue as a representative action, similar to a class action, noting that the workers named in the case made slightly different allegations.

The Eritreans will need to file separate lawsuits, which could make the case more complex and expensive.