Recently, I had a front row seat to the colliding of world visions and realities in the heart and center of Canada’s financial district in downtown Toronto. From November 23-30, five Mayan Qeqchi [Kek’Chi] people came to Toronto to pursue justice and remedy for violations and harms they suffered due to the nickel mining interests of Canadian mining company Hudbay Minerals.
“Avatar” overlaps with a “John Grisham” novel in the Mayan Qeqchi plaintiffs versus Hudbay Minerals lawsuits
Recently, I had a front row seat to the colliding of world visions and realities in the heart and center of Canada’s financial district in downtown Toronto.
From November 23-30, five Mayan Qeqchi [Kek’Chi] people came to Toronto to pursue justice and remedy for violations and harms they suffered due to the nickel mining interests of Canadian mining company Hudbay Minerals. They were here to respond to questions during cross-examinations by lawyers from Hudbay Minerals’ law firm Fasken Martineau.
WHO ARE THE FIVE?
Lawsuit #1 – Angelica Choc, wife of Adolfo Ich, a community leader, teacher and father who was the victim of a targeted killing in September 2009 carried out by private security guards hired by Hudbay’s subsidiary CGN (Guatemalan Nickel Company).
Lawsuit #2 – Rosa Elbira and Margarita Caal, representing eleven women from the remote village of Lote 8 who were gang-raped by company security guards, soldiers and police, during an illegal, violent eviction of their community in January 2007, that included the whole-scale burning and destruction of 100 small homes.
Lawsuit # 3 – German Chub, a young man and father who was shot by mining company security guards and left paralyzed on the same say as the killing of Adolfo Ich.
Accompanying them was Maria Cuc, sister of Angelica Choc and their brother Ramiro Choc, a political prisoner jailed unjustly in Guatemala on trumped up charges since 2008.
“AVATAR” CROSSED WITH A JOHN GRISHAM NOVEL
Since 2004, I have been involved (with Rights Action) in funding and supporting community development, environmental protection, human rights and justice projects of mining harmed Qeqchi communities in eastern Guatemala. I had the honor of accompanying and supporting them in Canada from the moment they got off the plane in Toronto.
In certain ways, these are typical civil lawsuits: Plaintiffs X sue defendant Y for acting negligently and causing harms to X. But in most ways, these are anything but typical cases.
These lawsuits represent perhaps the intersection of the “Avatar” blockbuster movie with a “John Grisham” novel.
AVATAR: Like many resource extraction conflicts around the world, both historically and on-going today, this story of Canadian nickel companies trying to operate a mine in the Qeqchi territories of eastern Guatemala (starting with INCO in the 1960s and 70s, continuing with Skye Resources and Hudbay after 2004) is like the documentary version of the Avatar movie.
In Avatar, a powerful mining company brings a battalion of heavily armed men to a remote, far off place, uses extreme violence to forcibly remove the local indigenous people from their ancestral and sacred homelands, so as to get at a mineral that – once mined and processed – will sell for gargantuan profits, somewhere far away.
In general terms, this is the story of nickel companies in Guatemala. Indeed, it is the story of many resource extraction struggles around the world, today and going back centuries.
JOHN GRISHAM: Then, Avatar crosses with a John Grisham novel. In many Grisham novels, powerless victims of corporate abuses and crimes are represented by pro bono lawyers, with few economic resources, to try and hold a ga-zillion dollar corporation accountable, said corporation being represented by well-paid lawyers from a politically well-connected law firm.
Represented by the Klippensteins law firm, who are doing much of the legal work for little or no pay, the Qeqchi victims have stuck a legal toe in the side door of the very political and legal structures and systems that so often empower and ‘legitimize’ the expansion of corporate and investor interests across the globe (like Hudbay’s interests in Guatemala), while providing little to no real legal or political oversight and accountability.
The Klippensteins lawyers are well trained and experienced, and utterly committed to the principle that victims of crimes and harms ought to get justice and remedy for the harms and losses they have suffered; that wrong-doers – including wealthy, powerful and influential corporations and investors – can and ought to be held accountable when they directly or indirectly cause serious human rights harms.
CONFRONTING VAST GLOBAL INEQUALITY
On their clients’ behalf, Klippensteins agreed to file these cases and take them as far as they can, knowing full well the enormity of the legal-political challenge.
On this planet, our human community, separated off into hundreds of countries, is characterized by vast inequality of wealth and power, both inside and between nations. Many global corporations and investors (a majority based in Europe and North America) control more wealth than the GNPs (gross national product) of many countries around the world.
These companies scour the earth looking for resources to exploit and profit from. They are heavily invested in by private funds and public pension funds (like the Canada Pension Plan that was invested in Hudbay during the years of these violations in Guatemala). These companies are also supported in many ways by their home governments. They often hire their own armed security forces and are usually supported by the armies and police of the countries where they operate.
This is essentially the history of Canadian nickel companies in Guatemala, from INCO in the 1970s and 80s, to Skye Resources and Hudbay from 2004 forward.
CONFRONTING IMPUNITY AND IMMUNITY FROM ACCOUNTABILITY
These corporations and investors operate this way, around the planet, with close to complete impunity and immunity from legal or political accountability. In the year 2012, it is still next to impossible to hold global companies and investors accountable in any court in the countries where they operate, like Guatemala; in international human rights reporting bodies (like the United Nations or Organization of American States); or in the courts of their home countries, like Canada.
Despite the fact that countries, like Canada, espouse democratic values, a belief in and adherence to the rule of law and good governance, we intentionally do not have the criminal and civil legislation on the books, let alone the political will, to hold our own companies accountable if/when they commit crimes or human rights violations and health and environmental harms in other counties.
These three lawsuits represent, in this regard, an exception to the rule of impunity and immunity from legal accountability. There is no way whatsoever (that I know of) to hold our companies criminally accountable in our courts if/when they commit crimes in other countries.
In terms of civil law accountability, there is, once again, an effort to pass comprehensive legislation (Bill C-323, The International Promotion and Protection of Human Rights Act) so as to start to fill the legal accountability void, … but this is an uphill struggle and is likely to meet strong opposition from the mining industry itself, let alone from politicians in the dominant political parties. (Information about this law and campaign: http://www.facebook.com/PassBillC323; www.peterjulian.ca; http://www.facebook.com/MPPeterJulian)
Our lack of laws and legal accountability is a hypocritical double standard and it is this very impunity and immunity from accountability that directly enables and empowers companies and investors to continue to act as they do.
A LONG TRIP ACROSS A FURTHER DISTANCE
It is in this daunting global context, that these 3 lawsuits are taking place. Of the five who came north, all are Qeqchi speakers. Sisters Maria and Angelica are bi-lingual, speaking fluent Spanish as well. German speaks quite good Spanish, as a second language. Rosa and Margarita speak only Qeqchi.
Four of them had never traveled internationally before. Rosa and Margarita had rarely been to Guatemala City. They all live in poor and materially simple rural communities, with no electricity, running water or access to basic health and educational services.
Lote 8, the village of Rosa and Margarita, is high on the mountain range the runs east-west along the north shore of Lake Izabal. There are no roads into Lote 8, a 2-3 hour hike to and from the main road below on the lowlands.
It took this group over 2 days of travel to get to Toronto. Before dawn on Thursday, November 22, Rosa and Margarita hiked down mountain paths to the main gravel road. Then, a 45 minute drive to the town of El Estor. There, Maria, Angelica and German joined them in the van, and they drove 7 hours to Guatemala City. The next morning, up at 3, they drove 5 hours to the San Salvador airport, to catch a 5 hour direct flight to Toronto.
At 10pm, Friday, November 23rd, they emerged with their suitcases, into the cold of a late November Toronto. Their home region of El Estor lies at sea level, one hour from the Caribbean Sea. It is one of the hottest regions of Guatemala. The cold of Toronto will take some getting used to. On day 1, the cold particularly affected German, due to the bullet still lodged in his back, too close to his already damaged spinal column for removal, without further risk of harm and deepening paralysis.
From the Toronto airport, they walked – German rolling in his wheelchair – into one of the centers of global power and wealth, to do legal battle with a wealthy and influential company, represented by a powerful and influential law firm, to demand justice and remedy in Canadian courts.
That is a very long trip, and even greater distance to cross. And this story is far from over. The 3 lawsuits are a small but crucial part of it.
The Qeqchi people of eastern Guatemalan have been suffering harms and violations by Canadian companies, dating back to when INCO partnered with the US-backed military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s, and carried out similar illegal and violence forced evictions, shooting and killings.
The 1999 United Nations Truth Commission concluded that INCO – via its Guatemalan subsidiary EXMIBAL – colluded with the Guatemalan military in at least 5 documented cases of serious human rights violations – including killings and disappearances.
No justice was ever done for what INCO did, neither in Guatemala nor in Canada. The victims were never remedied for their loss and suffering. In 1981, INCO closed the mining operation, but hung onto its (ill-gotten) mining concession.
By 2004, former directors of INCO had incorporated a new company – Skye Resources -, and in 2004, Skye (with support from INCO) started again to try and mine for nickel in the El Estor region; soon after that, repression began all over again.
For more background, please view: 10-minute film “El Estor Evictions”, by Steven Schnoor: http://rightsaction.org/video/elestor/index.htm; 5-minute trailer to forth-coming feature length film “Defensora”, by Rachel Schmidt: www.defensorathefilm.com.
THE LEGAL CASES
These lawsuits – filed in 2011 – may well go on for years. The Qeqchi plaintiffs and their lawyers at Klippensteins are very aware of the lopsided, up-hill nature of the legal struggle they are involved in. As a ‘legal tactic’, Hudbay could easily try to financially overwhelm the plaintiffs, using legal motions and petitions, appeals and counter-appeals, etc., spending seemingly endless amounts of Hudbay’s money to do so.
Hudbay is already arguing that -1- the cases should be brought in the jurisdiction of Guatemala, not Canada; and that -2- Hudbay should not be held to account for what its subsidiary – CGN (Guatemalan Nickel Company) – did in Guatemala.
JURISDICTION: Moving the cases to Guatemala would virtually guarantee complete impunity for Hudbay and its former subsidiary CGN. Notwithstanding a few cases of serious human rights violations and political repression that are finally moving very slowly through the Guatemalan courts, 20 to 30 years after the crimes (including genocide, massacres, disappearances, gang-rapes) were committed, it is widely recognized that legal and political impunity is the norm in Guatemala.
It is not that Guatemala does not have laws to address illegal forced evictions, killings, shootings, gang rapes, etc. It is that the legal system does not work – due to corruption fear, threats and influences – to hold the powerful sectors accountable, even when the powerful are foreign companies or individuals.
‘PIERCING THE CORPORATE VEIL’: Individuals, ultimately responsible for wrong-doing, have long hidden behind the legal artifice of the ‘corporate veil’. Ie, company and investor decision makers (who are also direct financial beneficiaries) hide behind the legal status of corporation ‘A’ (ex. Hudbay Minerals, in Canada) that they incorporated or purchased, and operate, arguing that they cannot be held responsible for the criminal or wrongful activities committed by corporation ‘B’ (ex. CGN, in Guatemala), that was incorporated or purchased by, and is operated by corporation A, that ultimately is controlled by them, the company directors and major shareholders. Nice!
Whether addressing wrongs within our national borders, or around the world, it is long overdue that our courts can and should ‘pierce the corporate veil’ and hold the real controllers and decision-makers (and, lest we forget, the financial beneficiaries) to account.
On one level, these lawsuits are normal and even mundane: filing statements of claim; paying attention to procedural law; filing and contesting motions, and counter-motions; negotiating and fighting about when and where to hold pre-trial hearings; etc. But these are not lawsuits about how one neighbor’s tree fell on another’s fence, shed and property and caused damage … even as many of the same procedural, evidentiary and substantive laws and legal principles apply.
These 3 cases, that operate in many ways as one lawsuit, are bringing together a hugely wealthy company and some of the wealthiest investors on the planet (and their deep pockets, powerful law firm and connections to the Canadian political, economic and media establishments), on the one hand, with some of the poorest people on the planet, from ‘far-off’ places, speaking wildly different languages – the languages of the first nations of the Americas.
Forced together, through the courageous filing of these lawsuits, the two sides sat across from one another in a board room, in a sky-scraper in downtown Toronto, to face off in this initial round of pre-trial cross-examinations.
Four days in a row (German on Monday, Rosa on Tuesday, Margarita on Wednesday, Angelica on Thursday), the Qeqchi and Spanish speaking plaintiffs responded to up to 8 hours of questioning by Hudbay’s lawyers. Four days in a row, the other members of the group walked every morning to the door of the room where the hearings took place, to provide strength and moral support to the person going in that day; waited to have lunch with them; and then welcomed them in the evening when their day of questioning was done.
“WE WON” (Ganamos)
On Wednesday afternoon, Margarita – after 8 hours of questioning – rejoined her Qeqchi friends and community members, raised both arms in the air, and said, with a huge smile of relief, “Ganamos” (we won), as they crowded around her and hugged her. She cried.
Two points. Firstly, nothing has been won. These trials – barring unforeseen circumstances – are still in the initial stages. In Toronto, these are only pre-trial hearings. What did Margarita mean – “we won”? Two nights later, she responded to that question put to her by the media, saying: ‘We know that Hudbay has said that what we say is not true. I know Hudbay said that we [the women of Lote 8] were not gang-raped. But, we were gang-raped; Adolfo is dead, and buried under the ground; German was shot, and is here with us, in a wheelchair. So today, I answered every one of their questions. I did not cry. I told the truth, I did not lie.’
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Margarita said “we” – she did not say “I” won, referring to herself, though she had just been through 8 hours of cross-examination alone.
This “we” versus “I” goes to a larger point about what this struggle is for the Qeqchi people of Guatemala. For all of them, “they” are being harmed by the selfish interests of “outsiders” – Guatemalan and foreign wealthy interests always using violence against them, the original inhabitants of those lands, to get them off their lands so as to produce bananas, coffee, cows (for meat exports), sugar cane, African palm, or to mine for nickel.
The harms, violations and repression always have been and remain a collective harm against a people. Margarita is here, responding individually to Hudbay’s questions, but she is involved in a community struggle, both for justice and remedy in these cases, and ultimately for their community well-being, in their homes, on their lands, in their forests, by their water sources.
The gang-rapes that the eleven women of Lote 8 suffered were both individual and collective harms at the same time. Margarita, who has come from her world in Lote 8 to the heart and center of Canada’s financial capital, is proudly and with extraordinary dignity struggling for justice and remedy for herself and her Mayan Qeqchi people.
It is hard to fully describe the chasm between different world visions and life experiences in which space these lawsuits are playing themselves out.
ENDING 500 YEARS OF IMPUNITY
The scenario of the lawsuits is already hard enough to believe, let alone to consider that this is a precedent setting case. This has rarely if ever happened in Canadian courts.
If the global human community had been actually governed by the rule of law and principles of good governance and democratic accountability for, say, the last 500 years, then countless numbers of these cases would have been filed and addressed since the European (English, French, Spanish, Portuguese) invasion of the Americas beginning in 1492 … (when ‘Columbus sailed the ocean blue’). An entire body of law and precedents would have been established and put in place. These types of abuses would no longer occur, and when they did, real justice would be swift.
This obviously never happened – not then, and still not now. We don’t live in that world. 500 years have passed since European expansionism across the globe and the birth of the modern (and very unequal) Nation State system, and still the global human community is still deeply characterized by the impunity with which powerful states, companies and investors can and do act.
In just about every way thinkable, Canada and our courts are not doing the Qeqchi people of Guatemala the favor of hearing and possibly – just possibly – deciding upon the merits of their claims. It is the Qeqchi people of Guatemala who are doing us the favor of ensuring that our courts and legal system operate the way they should have been operating, going back generations, if not hundreds of years.
In their region of Guatemala alone, INCO never should have been able to operate as it did, in partnership with a brutal US-backed military regime, directly and indirectly causing serious violations and repression, acting with impunity.
IT IS THE ECONOMY, STUPID
And even with all this, which is a lot, this struggle is about much more than that of ensuring that the Canadian legal system operates as it should, and ensure everyone’s right to justice and remedy.
Underlying all this, is that the Qeqchi people of Guatemala – like poor indigenous and non-indigenous communities across the world – are working and struggling to be the owners, controllers and beneficiaries of their own economic development, of their own lives and well-being.
‘It is about the economy, stupid!’ … it is about the global “development” model. Not only do the Qeqchi people want and deserve justice and remedy for the repression they have suffered, they want and deserve to be the owners and controllers of their own lands, territories, rivers and forests. They don’t want large-scale “development” projects (mining, large-scale dams, for-export mono-agricultural production, oil and gas extraction, etc.) imposed on them by foreign owners, companies and investors – often backed up by repressive security forces, soldiers and police.
They want and deserve to be responsible for their own well-being, providing for their families and future generations, in balance and harmony with Mother Earth.
THEY WILL BE BACK, IF NECESSARY
As each one of them said, when asked many times over the week, they did not come to Canada for happy reasons, on a tourist trip. It was a very long and hard trip, and not something they enjoyed.
They came here to tell the truth about what happened to them, and to demand justice and remedy in Canadian courts. If necessary, they will come back to Canada as many times as it takes to participate in these lawsuits.
Hudbay purchased its mining interests in Guatemala in 2008, and sold them for a loss of $290,000,000 in 2011, but not before engaging – like companies before them – in serious human rights violations. Other nickel companies are now operating near by. Some of the same threats loom over the lives and well being of the Qeqchi people of El Estor, and beyond.
Thus, their work and struggle in defense of their land and community well-being goes back generations, and continues on now. These lawsuits are a small, but now hugely important part of their work and struggle. It long has been a hard struggle for that the Qeqchi people have carried out with truth and dignity. It continues.
Grahame Russell is a non-practicing Canadian lawyer, author, adjunct professor at the University of Northern British Columbia and, since 1995, co-director of Rights Action. firstname.lastname@example.org