The Limits of Corporate Benevolence, from Mongolia to Michigan

The phrase “human rights” is nowhere to be found in the Oyu Tolgoi Investment Agreement, a document [pdf] that will play a critical role in guiding Mongolia’s development over the next decade. The Agreement sets the terms for the $6.2 billion investment in the Oyu Tolgoi gold and copper mining project, which promises to account for no less than one-third of Mongolia’s GDP by the year 2020. Rio Tinto has a 66 percent stake in the project through its subsidiary, Turquoise Hill Resources Ltd; the Mongolian government owns the rest.

Along with the serious environmental concerns cited by the United States when it abstained, in February of this year, from a World Bank investment scheme in Oyu Tolgoi, there are a host of human rights issues to address — from migrancy to land seizures, rights to the scarce water resources of the Gobi desert region, conditions in Ulaanbaatar’s Ger camps, and the survival of Mongolia’s herder communities. (The Bank Information Center provides an overview of these concerns, here and here.) The Investment Agreement briefly addresses some of these points, but it resorts, in all instances, to what I would call the language of corporate benevolence.

So the Investor agrees to abide by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (a voluntary agreement to publish payments made by the Oyu Tolgoi mine to the government); in another place (section 4.13; but cf. also section 4.6) the Investor consents to “build and maintain productive working relationships, based on principles of transparency, accountability, accuracy, trust, respect and mutual interests, with non-governmental organizations, civic groups, civil councils and other stakeholders.” Beyond this, there is not much else to guide or govern the company’s conduct vis a vis civil society and its responsibility to respect human rights.

Given the high stakes, the scale of Oyu Tolgoi and the involvement of the World Bank and IFC in the project, it is surprising the Agreement does not explicitly incorporate — or reference — the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. Instead of creating binding agreements or even practical mechanisms to ensure that Oyu Tolgoi and the government of Mongolia meet their respective human rights obligations as the economy accelerates and the social terrain continues to shift, the Investment Agreement relies on the language of corporate social responsibility to smooth things over.

Part of the trouble with CSR isn’t just that it tends to replace binding agreements and articulated responsibilities with vague sentiments, the language of corporate benevolence, and promises of sustainability and shared prosperity. That’s bound to happen when social responsibility meets public relations. A bigger problem is that the commitments companies voluntarily make to contribute to economic development and social progress — and to respect human rights — will last only as long as the business requires them.

For an example of how abruptly a company can ditch stakeholder communities, what happened in Michigan yesterday with another Rio Tinto project may turn out to be more instructive than what’s happening right now in Mongolia. In the face of serious environmental and human rights challenges to its Eagle Mine project over the last several years, Rio Tinto all along touted its good corporate citizenship, promising to “leave more wood on the woodpile” and to take an active hand in the long term, “sustainable development” of the Upper Peninsula. That is just part of “The Way We Work,” as the title of a Rio Tinto CSR publication would have it — or at least it was the Way We Worked. Yesterday, the company announced that it had sold the Eagle Mine project to Toronto-based Lundin Mining for the tidy sum of $325 million cash — part of CEO Sam Walsh’s strategy to divest from “non-core” assets and protect the single-A credit rating the company currently enjoys. A community of stakeholders whose future Rio Tinto promised to make happy, bright and prosperous became, overnight, a disposable asset.

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