A group of indigenous Mayan Q’eqchi’ have filed three civil lawsuits in Canada against HudBay Minerals Inc. of Toronto for alleged human rights atrocities committed by its subsidiaries – HMI Nickel, Skye Resources and Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel – at the company’s nickel mine in eastern Guatemala.
The outcome of this cross border lawsuit is being closely watched by human rights activists after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a case against Shell for aiding and abetting human rights abuses in Nigeria on the grounds that Shell did not have sufficient ties to the U.S.
However the Supreme Court decision left open the possibility that U.S. companies could be sued in U.S. courts for human rights abuses abroad. Thus a legal decision that allows Canadian companies to be sued in their home country, would also help fill the legal vacuum that multinationals have often taken advantage of historically to escape liability.
One reason that these cases are important is because of a legal doctrine known as “forum non conveniens” (which literally means an inconvenient forum) under which lawsuits brought against multinational companies for abuses in other countries are often rejected in most courts. Indeed HudBay sought to have the lawsuits dismissed on the grounds that under Canadian law, a parent company cannot be held responsible for its subsidiaries’ actions. The company argued that the case should be heard in Guatemalan courts instead.
But this past February, in a surprise move, HudBay abandoned its earlier defense that Guatemala was the proper legal forum for the lawsuits. This was after Amnesty Canada, acting as a court intervener, argued that HudBay could be be held legally accountable for alleged negligence.
“I think it’s a stunning victory for human rights. I think it’s historic,” Murray Klippenstein, the lawyer for the Guatemalan plaintiffs told the Toronto Star. “It should send shockwaves through the boardrooms throughout Canada.”
For its part, the company claims that it made the decision based on cost. Analysts also believe that the company also made a calculated gamble that it could win the case in Canada because the witnesses for the plaintiffs were perceived as weak. Not least was perhaps the worry that they might lose the lawsuit, given that Chevron took the chance of being sued in Ecuador as the most “convenient” forum only to lose badly and receive a multi-billion dollar judgment against it.