Guest post by Thorbjørn Waal Lundsgaard

Sierra Leone is best known for its violent civil war (1991-2002) and “blood diamonds”. Today the country is in the news because of the Ebola outbreak.  According to the WHO, there have been 422 deaths so far with over 1,026 more suspected cases. Airlines have temporarily suspended flights and several mining companies have sent their employees home.

Implications for Sierra Leone’s struggling economy are potentially dire. How locally influential companies like African Minerals Limited (AML) execute their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies is vital to the continued stabilization of peace in Sierra Leone, a post-conflict country, especially given their susceptibility to crisis such as ebola.

Traditional development strategies have not proven effective in post-conflict settings, and it has gradually come to be understood by key economic development actors such as the World Bank that post-conflict countries require alternative approaches. Yet peace-building and conflict prevention are still rarely included by economic development actors and donors as part of their national strategies. The same is true for investing companies.

CSR policies based on and incorporating human rights, with its universally agreed upon rights and values, can  provide a basis for conflict-sensitive guidelines because community-company conflicts are often rooted in human rights impacts. Assessments of potential environmental and human rights impacts before operations start is crucial for limiting negative consequences of operations, including through increased understanding of society, culture and customs.

 

Business-community relations in post-conflict society: a case study

African Minerals Limited (AML), based mainly in Bumbuna, a town in the Tonkolili district in the center of Sierra Leone, is the first company to mine and export iron ore from Sierra Leone in over 30 years. It has over 11000 employees, four-fifths of whom are Sierra Leonian nationals, making it one of the country’s biggest employers.

During three days in April 2012, a number of serious human rights violations took place in Bumbuna.  These included the death of a woman named Musu Conteh and wounding of eight others as a result of gun shots fired by police during protests by unarmed AML workers, who were protesting against poor working conditions and pay.

The Bumbuna incident was immediately investigated by the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone, and later by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.  These reports found little evidence of AML’s direct involvement in the incidents mentioned above:  the only proven allegation was that the police had used an AML subcontractor’s vehicle, driven by AML employees, to wrongfully arrest a local pastor.

However, what these organization’s reports highlight is that poor relations between AML and the community contributed to the eruption of the Bumbuna disturbances.  Bad relations caused by poor communication between the corporation and the stakeholders was a recurring factor behind difficulties in Sierra Leone and the other case study in my article. While the immediate cause were working conditions of direct and subcontracted employees, prior community resettlements by AML had disrupted people´s livelihoods and created widespread dissatisfaction with AML´s presence.

 

Need for human-rights based, conflict-sensitive CSR policies

Conflicts between companies and communities are typically triggered by actual or perceived human rights abuses. A strong focus on compliance with internationally agreed human rights norms, accountability and effective local remedies for aggrieved parties is key in managing risks related to company- community conflict.  If any form of CSR is capable of averting such conflicts, it will be a human rights-based variant as I suggest in my article, and can be seen to have worked with Odebrecht in Brazil and Finlay in Kenya.

AML’s own reports on CSR indicated some achievements – wage adjustments, index linked annual pay revisions, union recognition, establishing Centers of Excellence for the training and development of the national workforce. In 2011, AML was working towards establishing funds to support community development, environment and social protection and impact mitigation, each to receive 0.1% of AML’s gross annual sales.

However, my analysis found that AML lacked a human rights-based approach to CSR. Policies and practices did not incorporate minimum standards required by human rights norms. For instance, while AML indicated that it was a participant to the UNGC, it denied its own workers’ freedom of association when they wished to change their union, in breach of UNGC principles and a factor which sparked the worker protests in Bumbuna.

After the Bumbuna incident, AML conducted an internal review. It pointed to the company’s rapid growth as one of the reasons for bad practices and conceded a range of opportunities for improvement in operating standards and communications. It also reaffirmed its commitment to UNGC. But it can be asked whether these responses are enough, or even too late, to mitigate community conflict.

In post-conflict environments, there is a high danger of relapse into civil war. There is also a greater potential for small incidents to develop into serious ones, while any conflict in the society triggers instantly renewed trauma and fear for their lives, and of a return to mass violence. But neither was there any evidence that in its practices AML had adopted a conflict-sensitive approach like the United Nations Global Compact Guidance on Responsible Business in Conflict-Affected and High-Risk Areas.

Communication between companies and stakeholders in post-conflict environments needs in future to start from these points. Failure to do so consistently results in local conflicts that can undermine businesses’ license to operate. In Mozambique, the other case considered in my research, Rio Tinto has struggled to maintain good relations with communities around its vast coal mine and resettlements have sparked widespread disputes since Rio Tinto’s acquisition in 2003.  Now, sporadic fighting has returned after twenty years of peace. Rio Tinto employees were recently evacuated as a response to kidnappings and railway blockages by rebels that caused a halt in coal exports (see Article ).

AML’s share price has taken a considerable dive this year. According to the company this resulted from a dip in iron ore price and the Ebola crisis- which has hit Sierra Leone so hard because of weak healthcare and governance systems more broadly. In such circumstances, a CSR policy that is sensitive to potential conflicts can help stabilize peace, foster good governance and institutions, and thereby secure long term business operations – which would be the ultimate win-win solution for those who live in fragile states.

 

Author

Thorbjørn Waal Lundsgaard has an MPhil in peace and conflict transformation, is currently pursuing an Msc in Development Management at the University of Agder, Norway, and an LLM in International Human Rights Law from Oxford Brookes University. This guest blogs draws on an article by Thorbjørn recently published in the Journal of Business, Peace and Sustainable Development.

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