Nevsun Before the Supreme Court

On January 23rd, the Supreme Court of Canada will decide whether to allow a ground-breaking lawsuit to go forward against a Canadian mining company for the use of slavery.

Yes, you read that right: a Canadian company is going before the Supreme Court of Canada to determine whether it can be sued for the use of slavery.

In 2008, Nevsun Resources (NSU) entered into a joint-venture partnership with the Eritrean government to develop the Bisha gold-zinc-copper mine. Nevsun owns 60 percent of Bisha while the Eritrean state owns the other 40 percent. Bisha is the largest single source of revenue to the Eritrean government, bringing in over $1 billion in taxes and other payments (such as royalties) since exploitation began in 2011.

According to an interview by the Globe and Mail with former Nevsun CEO Cliff Davis, Davis was asked about human rights concerns in Eritrea, to which he responded, “There are always trade-offs in where you’re working. As a mining company, we shouldn’t be imposing some form of political environment that we’re familiar with.” In other words, insisting on respect for human rights would be an imposition on the Eritrean government!

Nevsun would have been aware that Eritrea is ruled by a brutal dictatorship which has not allowed elections or implemented its constitution and that the United Nations calls it one of the worst  human rights abusers in the world. Freedom of speech, religion, assembly and association are severely limited. Eritrea relies on a conscription program that forces young Eritreans into government or military service, sometimes for decades. Conscripts say these jobs involve abuse, starvation, low or no pay, and slavery-like conditions.

As part of its arrangement with the Eritrean government, Nevsun was partnered with a state-controlled construction company called Segen Construction which reportedly used conscripted labour to build the Bisha mine. Workers claim they were beaten, starved, unpaid, and kept prisoner during their years building the mine. The United Nations has called Eritrea’s conscription program ‘enslavement’. In 2013, Nevsun was forced to confirm that conscripted labour had been used at the mine. However, it says third-party audits show that Bisha now conforms to international standards.

In 2014, three Eritrean refugees and former conscripted workers at Bisha filed a lawsuit against Nevsun in BC Supreme Court alleging Nevsun was complicit in the use of torture, forced labour, slavery and crimes against humanity. They described working 10 hours per day, six days per week without enough food or even beds in their huts, receiving beatings, chemical and sun burns from working without safety equipment, and the use of torture techniques as a form of punishment. They are asking for justice and reparations for what they suffered.

In 2016 and again in 2017 the BC Supreme Court and the BC Court of Appeal rejected Nevsun’s claim that the plaintiffs would receive a fair trial in Eritrea. Nevsun has since appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, arguing that Canada should not hear the case against it for the use of slavery and human rights abuses at its Bisha mine.

This is an historic case, one which could determine how Canadian companies will be held accountable in the future for their overseas investment projects.  

Amnesty International Canada and the International Commission of Jurists have been granted status in the January 23 Supreme Court hearing as interveners or ‘friends of the court’. Amnesty will submit that Canada must ensure that victims of corporate human rights abuses have access to effective remedy, which the BC Appeal Court ruled is not possible in Eritrea.


Join our special campaign briefing on the Nevsun case, presented by Business and Human Rights campainger, Tara Scurr, and Amnesty’s Public Interest Articling Fellow, Aditya Rao. 

When: Tuesday, January 29th 2019 / 7:30 pm – 8:30 pm EST 

>>> Register now! 


You can follow updates to the docket and watch the livestream of the hearing on January 23 here>>> 

Read our recap of the hearing here >>>