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Supporters of slain Mexican mining activist take case against Canada to international body

Mariano Abarca was killed in 2009 after protesting a Canadian-owned barite mine

A man.

Mexican activist Mariano Abarca is shown in an image from video in August 2009 in Chicomuselo, Chiapas. He was killed on Nov. 27, 2009, after opposing a Canadian company's mining project.

Photo: (The Canadian Press)

The Canadian Press

Family and supporters of a Mexican activist who was killed after opposing a Canadian company's mining project are taking their case to an international human rights body.

The Justice and Corporate Accountability Project, a Canadian initiative by volunteer lawyers, is making a complaint to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of the family of Mariano Abarca.

The complaint alleges that Canada failed to uphold its international human rights obligations by pressuring Mexican authorities to advance the mining project, despite having knowledge about related threats to Abarca's life.

The activist's supporters have exhausted legal avenues in the Canadian courts.

The case stretches back to 2007, when Calgary-based Blackfire Exploration Ltd. opened a barite mine in Chiapas, Mexico, prompting local opposition, demonstrations and a blockade of a route to the project.

After being beaten and threatened with death for leading protests over the mine's environmental and social impacts, Abarca was shot and killed outside his home on Nov. 27, 2009.

Quest for justice in Canada

Several years later, members of Abarca's family and organizations concerned with mining abuses asked Joe Friday, Canada's public sector integrity commissioner, to probe whether there was wrongdoing by members of the Canadian Embassy in Mexico.

They said federal policy required Canadian embassies to promote corporate social responsibility and assess possible human rights effects, including violence.

The supporters also argued that the embassy never investigated the source of the tensions between the community and Blackfire, and failed to conduct a violence-related risk assessment.

Une personne allume des chandelles devant une affiche à la mémoire de Mariano Abarca

A demonstrator lights candles next to a banner with a picture of anti-mine activist Abarca during a protest outside the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City, on Dec. 3, 2009.

Photo: Associated Press / Eduardo Verdugo

In addition, the family members and groups noted that while embassy officials met Mexican officials to advocate on Blackfire's behalf, there was no indication the embassy raised concerns with the Mexican government about Abarca's safety or the importance of respecting democratic values such as free speech.

However, Friday decided not to conduct a probe.

In April 2018, he found there was no code of conduct breach and no wrongdoing by the embassy in its interactions with Blackfire, given its mandate to assist Canadian companies abroad. Friday also concluded that the embassy had not ignored human rights concerns, noting that after Abarca was arrested by police in 2009, the embassy sought information about his detention.

The Federal Court concluded it was reasonable for the commissioner to decide not to investigate, a ruling upheld by the Federal Court of Appeal. In January of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada said it would not hear the case.

As a member of the Organization of American States, Canada is bound to respect standards set by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Abarca's supporters say.

The complaint about Abarca's case asks the commission to conclude that Canada must make reparations for violating his right to life, freedom of expression, association and due process under the law.

A man holds a newspaper.

Abarca's son, Jose Luis Abarca Montejo, holds a newspaper article in Toronto on Sept. 25, 2010, about allegations of corruption by Calgary-based mining company Blackfire Exploration.

Photo: (The Canadian Press) / Dominique Jarry-Shore

Jose Luis Abarca Montejo, Mariano Abarca's son, said in a statement released by MiningWatch Canada, a non-governmental organization, that Ottawa has refused to investigate whether Canadian officials bear any responsibility for my father's murder.

This case is important, not only for my family, but for all the other human rights and environmental defenders around the world who have the misfortune of catching the eye of Canadian mining interests.