Australia

Aboriginal groups call for Rio Tinto to be stripped of human rights recognition

The site at Juukan Gorge in WA's Pilbara region, after Rio Tinto's blast took place. Source: Supplied: PKKP

Thirty-five Aboriginal and human rights organisations have signed a letter calling for Rio Tinto to be removed from a list of global companies that respect human rights.

Aboriginal and human rights organisations are calling for mining giant Rio Tinto to be removed from a global index promoting its human rights record, following the destruction of culturally significant sites. 

The 2019 Corporate Human Rights Benchmark assesses 200 of the largest publicly traded companies in the world on a set of human rights indicators.

Rio Tinto is currently the highest ranked extractives company on the CHBR, with a total score of 76 per cent. 

Thirty-five organisations have signed a letter calling for Rio Tinto to be removed from the list, after the company used explosives to destroy Aboriginal sacred sites in Western Australia in May.  

“We signed this letter because of the wanton disregard of what Aboriginal people are saying about our areas of significance,” Kimberley Land Council CEO Nolan Hunter told SBS News.

“If you look at the Kimberley region, there’s a lot of mining activity and the agreements that are struck with traditional owners can vary.

“There is no consistency with how the companies behave. We need to maintain a level of standards that ensures companies listen to what Aboriginal people are saying”. 

In May, Rio Tinto detonated explosives in an area of the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, destroying two ancient rock shelters and causing significant distress to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people.

Protesters at a rally outside the Rio Tinto office in Perth in June 2020.
Protesters at a rally outside the Rio Tinto office in Perth in June 2020.
AAP

The shelters were the only inland site in Australia showing human occupation continuing through the last Ice Age.

The CHRB suspended Brazilian mining company Vale in 2019, after the dam collapse at the company’s Córrego do Feijão mine in Brumadinho, Brazil.

“Benchmarks like the CHRB are really important because companies rely on them to demonstrate to investors, to governments and the public at large, their human rights credentials,” Human Rights Law Centre legal director Keren Adams said.   

“If those benchmarks don’t reflect the reality of what’s happening on the ground … they perpetuate an illusion that there isn’t a problem with a company’s culture.”  

Reconciliation Australia revoked its endorsement of Rio Tinto as a partner organisation and suspended the company from the Reconciliation Action Plan program in June. 

Protesters during a rally outside the Rio Tinto office in Perth, June 2020.
Protesters during a rally outside the Rio Tinto office in Perth, June 2020.
AAP

In response, the World Benchmarking Alliance said it will add a statement to Rio Tinto's listing on the CHRB, condemning the "destruction of invaluable cultural heritage". 

"This incident is a severe adverse impact on cultural rights that has engendered extreme concern and outrage among the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura traditional owners of the site as well as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and their allies," the statement added to the listing reads. 

"CHRB and WBA call on Rio Tinto to take appropriate action to carry out an independent investigation of the incident, involving affected stakeholders, to provide effective remedy and to prevent similar impacts in the future, in Australia and elsewhere."

The letter to World Benchmarking Alliance executive director Gerbrand Haverkamp states that in recent years, Rio Tinto has been the subject of serious human rights and environmental complaints in Bougainville, West Papua, Mongolia, Guinea, Namibia and Madagascar, as well as Australia.

“All of the organisations that signed on were profoundly impacted and extremely angry about what the company had done in Jukaan Gorge in May. But broader than that, there is concern that this is not an isolated incident,” Ms Adams said. 

“We'd like to see Rio Tinto take concrete steps to remedy (the Juukan Gorge) situation, as well as preventative action in the future. It’s simply not enough to give a qualified apology and commit to an internal review.”

The destruction of Juukan Gorge, has lead to calls across Australia for heritage laws to be strengthened, to better protect sacred Aboriginal sites from mining activity.

Mr Nolan said concrete policies were necessary.

“The behaviour of companies and the legislative frameworks that are meant to protect Aboriginal heritage sites, it’s a consistent problem that we’re dealing with. At what point do you make companies accountable for their actions and how they treat people?” Mr Nolan said.

“We’ve had the fight for native title in Australia to acknowledge the rights that Aboriginal people have to their land. When you have a company that comes along and disregards that, it begins to impinge upon human rights.

“Whether that’s an internal policy that companies aspire to or whether there’s legislative framework that demands adherence, there’s a range of measures that could be implemented. But what we find is, companies’ internal processes and legislative frameworks have no impacts on the outcomes when they engage with Aboriginal people”.

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