The corporate responsibility to respect human rights does not diminish when the government responsibility to protect those rights falls short. The implications of “respect” are far-reaching in countries with civil conflict or weak governance. Few nations exhibit this so starkly as Sierra Leone, where rights are poorly understood and abysmally protected. For a company to respect rights is to rebuild a rights system wholesale. Nomogaia has been tracking the development of foreign investment and human rights protections in Sierra Leone, particularly in the region south of Freetown, where Sierra Rutile is located.
Our research concerns the abstract responsibilities imposed upon transnational corporations and the way those responsibilities interact with community needs (for survival) and project needs (for profitability). Responsible project proponents are, by and large, disinterested in such high maintenance projects in reputationally risky areas. In the words of a mining advisor in the country from DIFD, “Mining is important to Sierra Leone, but Sierra Leone is not important to global mining.”
The country’s largest foreign export, a little-known mineral called rutile, represents only $50 million of mineral on a good year. It is insignificant globally but represents over half of Sierra Leone’s foreign export earnings. Big global players simply don’t operate there. “I’d love to have those brands here because I know that they have accountability beyond the government, and their brands have a value on the markets,” he says.
Rutile is a second rate mineral, but gold and diamonds have far more promise. Still, though, the brand name companies stay away. Instead, the country is left with little league players on what is, by all accounts, a major league resource field.
For Sierra Rutile, adhering to the UN Special Representative’s “corporate responsibility to respect human rights” has broader implications. Human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration include political, social and economic rights – not to mention rights to life and health. In Sierra Leone, the government lacks funds to build roads or pay the salaries of functionaries. Most of the nation is without electricity and health care. There are an estimated four pediatricians and seven dentists in the whole country. Most teachers aren’t being paid their salaries because their names aren’t on official teacher registries.
Sierra Rutile has found it unviable to support all of the rights needs of local communities and has instead adopted a piecemeal plan for keeping local governments content and communities peaceful. Such a policy may prove untenable as a business model and will certainly prove inviable as a method for respecting rights. That’s not to say Sierra Rutile is irresponsible for adopting the project, though. More than a few cases have been made that the junior mining companies that were first to sprout in Sierra Leone’s post-war era are its lifeline.
As this research continues, so will narrative updates and hard data.