Transnational Access to Justice in Araya v Nevsun: Overcoming Procedural Barriers to Remedy in Business and Human Rights Cases - By Alexandru Rares Tofan

Editor's note: Alexandru Rares Tofan recently graduated with an LLM in Transnational Law from King’s College London where he focused on international human rights law, transnational litigation and international law. He is currently an intern with the Doing Business Right project at the Asser Institute in The Hague. He previously worked as a research assistant at the Transnational Law Institute in London on several projects pertaining to human rights, labour law and transnational corporate conduct.


In 2014, three Eritrean refugees commenced a representative action in British Columbia against the transnational mining company ‘Nevsun Resources’, pleading both private law torts and violations of customary international law. They alleged that they were subjected to forced labour, slavery, torture, and crimes against humanity while working at an Eritrean gold mine jointly owned by Nevsun (60%) and by the Eritrean State (40%). The representative action was brought on behalf of over a thousand people who had been drafted into the Eritrean National Service Programme (NSP) and subsequently forced to work at the Bisha Mine. The NSP is a governmental apparatus of indefinite and mandatory conscription that is fraught with allegations of forced labour and other human rights abuses. It was established under the authoritarian regime of President Isaias Afwerki who has been ruling Eritrea ever since the country gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993. As Nevsun is incorporated under the laws of British Columbia, the plaintiffs sought relief in the courts of the Canadian province. Notwithstanding the defendant’s attempts to have the proceeding stayed or dismissed, the action was allowed to go through both by the Supreme Court of British Columbia (BCSC) and the Court of Appeals (BCCA). On 14 June 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada granted Nevsun leave to appeal with a tentative hearing date set on 23 January 2019.

This proceeding raises complex issues of transnational law. The plaintiffs are seeking redress in a jurisdiction that is neither the locus delicti nor their country of nationality. Rather, the claimants argue that peremptory norms of customary international law create a private law cause of action and a right to recover damages under Canadian law. In point of fact, the plaintiffs have called attention to several delicate questions. Firstly, can claims of damages arising out of the alleged breach of jus cogens norms form the basis of a civil proceeding? And are corporations bound by these international law norms for that matter? The case is further layered by the involvement of the State of Eritrea. Since Nevsun is argued to be derivatively liable, a finding of guilt on its part would mean that the Canadian courts would be judging the acts of another state. This engages the act of state doctrine, which demands judicial abstention from adjudication of matters touching upon the conduct of foreign states.

Nevsun filed four interlocutory applications seeking to have the claim stayed, dismissed or struck out. This article traces the development of this case through the first three objections to jurisdiction raised by Nevsun and dismissed by the provincial courts: forum non conveniens, the act of state doctrine and the lack of corporate liability under customary international lawA fourth application argued that the plaintiffs’ claims are not appropriately brought as a representative action (i.e. class action). This application was granted by the Supreme Court of British Columbia and was not appealed by the plaintiffs.[1]