Social Conflict in the Extractive Sector: Developing Good Security Practices – Impressions of an Event by the UN Business and Human Rights Forum 2017

The Graduate Institute Geneva hosted an event during the 2017 United Nations Business and Human Rights Forum on November 28th under the title „Social Conflict in the Extractive Sector: Developing Good Security Practices“. The event was organized in collaboration with Rio Tinto, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF) and the Centre for International and Defense Policy (Queen’s University, Canada).

Moderated by Achim Wennmann, a senior researcher of the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding, a panel examined how companies can respond to security and human rights challenges arising from their working in „complex environments“, as framed during the discussion. The panel consisted of Isabelle Brissette, a Rio Tinto manager concerned with Governance, Risk and Use of Force, Group Security and Business Resilience, Stefanie von Hlatky, an Associate Professor of Political Studies from Queen’s University and Claude Voillat, an Economic Advisor from the ICRC.

A considerable part of the discussion focused on a study conducted by Stefanie Hlatky, in which a survey was created to control whether security experts within Multinational Corporations operating in the extractive sector shared the same understanding of the causes of conflict within such “complex environments”. It was important to first identify the main challenges before proposing ideas on how to implement a conflict prevention program. The results showed that security experts perceived protests, blockades, vandalism, theft, injuries and death as the main security incidents. Furthermore, there was a broad consensus among those individually surveyed that there is a need for a conflict prevention lens when approaching such issues and that full and open engagement from the start and throughout the life cycle of extractive operations up until the closure of a mine is necessary. Local issues relevant to the affected community should be addressed and more participation of the state should be fostered as well.

Claude Voillat from the ICRC then shared more information on a project between DCAF and the ICRC which addresses the need of companies for more support and guidance in regard to how to respect Business and Human Rights principles. A website which features as a knowledge hub for actors involved in such issues and presents a toolkit for companies facing security and human rights challenges in complex environments. The toolkit differentiates between working with host government, with public security forces, with private security providers and with communities and offers for each practical recommendations and examples of good practices. It is available on this website:

In the subsequent Questions & Answers session, it was interesting to hear from Rio Tinto that they have engaged during the past five to ten years with local communities and stakeholders framing this outreach as “part of our DNA”. This statement was followed by the explanation that not following international standards is not good for business and the qualification that Rio Tinto can still do better but that they do engage a lot but still less with public security forces than private ones. The approach always depends on the context, and only a case by case analysis can tell with what kind of security actors collaboration will follow suit. According to Isabelle Brissette, it is important though to engage with all actors as a company cannot predict with whom they will have to be involved in the case of an increasing risk that has to be addressed. It was also interesting to hear that from her perspective; multinational corporations have become more obliged to be involved as communities have become more vocal in expressing their grievances. While twenty years ago, Rio Tinto tried to get a legal license to operate, it was a social license needed to operate ten years later. The strategy today, however, is to have an accepted presence, to “become a partner of choice” and a partner for the communities – show to the community what is in for them.

I have asked myself a series of questions after visiting this panel discussion which was due to its compilation not concerned with criticism towards multinational corporations but mainly interested in constructive and academic collaboration aiming at the provision of substantial results to tackle security issues more effectively.

  • How can the discourse of Riotinto be interpreted when they speak of “becoming a partner of choice”? Can we interpret this trend outlined by the manager from acquiring the legal license to operate to becoming an accepted partner for the community as positive or are we facing a situation which is similar to the discussion around Fabiana Li (University of Manchester)’s research on “Documenting Accountability: Environmental Impact Assessment in a Peruvian Mining Project”, in which the mere fact that MNC’s want to have communities participate can lead to more legitimacy for the MNC but less actual change in conduct on behalf of the MNC?
  • On the other hand, if companies do adapt their discourse according to the criticism targeting their mining operations and to try to become a “partner” instead of what they were before, is this approach per se condemnable, the lesser of two evils, or something we should foster?



Author: GEN