Human Rights Challenges in the Extractive Sector (part 1)

It is only within the past decade or so that companies operating in the extractive sector have begun to properly assess and address the human rights impacts of their operations.  This post will introduce the topic of human rights and explore some of the common human rights challenges in the extractive sector.  A subsequent blog post will provide resources for extractive companies seeking to implement human rights safeguards or improve upon existing human rights practices.

Human rights primer

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a non-binding resolution that was drafted by a United Nations panel in the wake of World War II, creating the framework for later advances in international human rights law.  The declaration recognized civil, political, economic, cultural, and social rights as basic human rights and represented the consensus of a diverse range of countries.

In practice, the degree to which these basic human rights have been recognized within U.N. member states has varied greatly from country to country.  When national governments fail to meet their human rights obligations, nongovernmental organizations often play an important role in diffusing information about human rights violations that are taking place.  Over the course of the past fifty years or so, organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have contributed greatly to advancing the global human rights discourse.

Human right challenges and extractive industries

Human rights remain a contentious topic for many extractive industries.  Historically these industries have a poor track record in dealing with issues such as organized labor, public opposition to extractive projects, land rights of indigenous peoples, and physical displacement or resettlement of local peoples as a result of extractive activities.  These issues continue to pose human right challenges, and companies have slowly adopted more constructive approaches to addressing them that reflect improving industry standards of corporate social responsibility.

Some problems are particularly tough to solve.  For example, artisanal mining continues to present challenges to both mining companies and national governments.  The term “artisanal mining” generally refers to unregulated subsistence mining that is labor intensive and involves little machinery, technology, or financial capital.  When mineral concessions are granted to companies in areas where artisanal mining is already common, this can create conflict between communities and mining companies when local people no longer have any means of making a living.  In collaboration with the International Finance Corporation, the ICMM recently published a guidance document for companies struggling to deal with this issue.

Additional human rights challenges for extractive companies include the need to adequately train private security personnel so that they will not overreact to any real or perceived security risks that may exist, the need to ensure that women and children are not disproportionately affected by project impacts, and the need to ensure that transparent grievance mechanisms are in place for stakeholders so that they can voice project-related concerns without the threat of retaliation.


Given the major social and environmental impacts associated with many extractive projects, there is a significant risk that companies working in these industries will also have to deal with human rights impacts.  Avoiding these impacts, or minimizing them as much as possible through constructive stakeholder engagement practices and the establishment of transparent grievance mechanisms, is not only a matter of business ethics but also a crucial element of project success.  Given these considerations, it is well worth investing the time, money, and human resources necessary to get it right on human rights.

See also:
Human Rights Resources for Extractive Companies (part 2)

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