On 29 September 2020, the Human Rights Law Centre filed a complaint with the Australian NCP on behalf of 156 indigenous residents of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, who have been gravely impacted by pollution caused by Rio Tinto’s former mine in Bougainville.
According to the complainants, from 1972 to 2016, Rio Tinto was the majority owner of the Bougainville copper and gold mine Panguna, previously one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines that between 1972 and 1989 reaped billions of US dollars in revenue for the company and government of Papua New Guinea. In 1989, an uprising by local people against the mass environmental destruction caused by the mine and inequities in the distribution of its profits forced the mine’s closure and helped trigger a brutal decade-long civil war. The mine has never been reopened.
The complaint alleges that the massive volume of mine waste pollution left behind at Rio Tinto’s Panguna mine is putting communities’ lives and livelihoods at risk, poisoning their water sources, flooding their lands and sacred sites, and causing a range of health problems. An estimated 12-14,000 people live downstream of the mine along the Jaba-Kawerong river valley. The complainants assert that a clear path was identified to deal with the environmental devastation at Panguna in 2014, but despite being aware of this, Rio Tinto divested from the mine before the rehabilitation plan could be implemented. The company reportedly passed on its shares in the mine to the Bougainville and PNG Governments and side-stepped all costs of clean-up. The complaint alleges that Rio Tinto’s failure to clean up the billion tonnes of waste pollution left by the mine and mitigate the risks it poses to these communities breaches human rights and environmental standards set out in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
The complaint was filed not long after the international fallout over Rio Tinto’s destruction of a 46,000 year old Aboriginal sacred site in Western Australia, which led to the forced resignation of the company’s CEO and two senior executives earlier this month. Immediately after this complaint filing, Rio Tinto released a public statement commiting to holding discussions with communities about these impacts. The complainants assert that this statement represents an important breakthrough and marks the first shift in Rio Tinto’s position, which has previously been complete denial of responsibility for Panguna. Moving forward, the communities are seeking the Australian NCP’s support in securing commitments from the company to engage with them about these problems, contribute to an independent fund to address the immediate health and safety dangers caused by the mine, and assist with long-term clean up and rehabilitation.
Relevant OECD Guidelines
- Chapter II
- Chapter II Paragraph A1
- Chapter II Paragraph A10
- Chapter II Paragraph A11
- Chapter II Paragraph A2
- Chapter II Paragraph A7
- Chapter IV
- Chapter IV Paragraph 1
- Chapter IV Paragraph 2
- Chapter IV Paragraph 3
- Chapter IV Paragraph 5
- Chapter IV Paragraph 6
- Chapter VI
- Chapter VI Paragraph 1
- Chapter VI Paragraph 2
- Chapter VI Paragraph 3
- Chapter VI Paragraph 5
- Commentary Ch. IV
- Commentary Ch. IV Paragraph 37
- Commentary Ch. IV Paragraph 38
- Commentary Ch. IV Paragraph 40
- Commentary Ch. IV Paragraph 41
- Commentary Ch. IV Paragraph 42
- Commentary Ch. IV Paragraph 46
- Commentary Ch. VI
- Commentary Ch. VI Paragraph 69
On 2 November 2020, the Australian NCP accepted the complaint for further consideration and offered its good offices to the parties.
On 21 July 2021, after months of constructive discussions facilitated by the Australian NCP, the parties published a joint statement on their agreement to implement the Panguna Mine Legacy Impact Assessment (Assessment) to identify and assess actual and potential environmental and human rights impacts of the Panguna mine on Bougainville and develop recommendations for what needs to be done to address them. The Assessment will be carried out by an independent third-party company (or consortium) unrelated to Rio Tinto or its affiliated business relations. It will have strong environmental and human rights expertise and will involve local and international experts. The Assessment will be overseen by a multi-stakeholder committee with representation from all relevant stakeholders including community representatives from the mine-affected areas. The Committee will be chaired by an independent facilitator.
The Assessment is one of three commitments from Rio Tinto sought by the communities under the complaint to the Australian NCP. The complaint also seeks commitments from Rio Tinto to engage with Panguna mine-affected communities to help find solutions and undertake formal reconciliation as per Bougainvillean custom, and contribute to a substantial, independently managed fund to help address the harms caused by the mine and assist long-term rehabilitation efforts. The parties hope the Assessment will lay the foundation for long-term solutions.
On 22 December 2021, the parties issued a second progress update. It detailed that in the second half of 2021, the parties continued working with various stakeholders in Bougainville and PNG, to establish a committee to oversee the impact assessment work. The committee held its first meeting in November 2021 and will meet regularly as the impact assessment work progresses. NCP Australia stated that the good offices process would continue while the impact assessment phase is underway with the stakeholder committee in Bougainville.
On 6 December 2022, the independent investigation into the environmental and human rights impact of the mine commenced.