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Panel 4B: The Role of Corporations in Modern Conflict from Prevention to Participation

Séance 4B:

November 14, 2014

Ilario Mailol 



Nadège Compaoré

Queen's University


Isabelle Brissette

Rio Tinto


Chris Harland




Jean-Simon Schoenholz 

2016 JD/MA Candidate


This panel was based on a joint, cross-sectoral project between Rio Tinto, Queen’s University and the ICRC. One of the issues this project seeks to determine is the role of the law in developing best practises that will help manage corporate-community relations in regions vulnerable to conflict.


The first speaker, Nadège Compaoré, spoke both generally of the project’s design and of her own research in the context of her doctoral work. The work is grounded in a belief that best practices should be based on the experience of various actors from different sectors. Multinational corporations, who can play an important role in conflictual situations, have an important role to play. For these organisations, conflict and human security issues are viewed pragmatically as having potential impacts on the company’s brand and revenues. While the notion of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is useful for examining the impact of an industry’s practices, the security dimension is rarely mentioned. Similarly, while the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights (VPSHR) are a step in the right direction, many of these principles have been carried out by organisations in an ad hoc manner. For these reasons, the project aims to improve CSR standards by developing preventive tools. This project should provide a model by which corporations can play a proactive role in strengthening the local community and fostering trust in managing conflict. In doing so the organisation can acquire a social licence to operate in the concerned community.


The second speaker, Isabelle Brissette, who is responsible for the development of Rio Tinto’s policies on use of force, human rights and security for projects in high risk locations, spoke of her organization’s involvement in the project. As a leader in the mining industry, Rio Tinto has created a Global Security unit seeking to protect the organisation’s personnel, assets and reputation when working in conflict zones or areas prone to conflict. This is important for the organisation as obtaining a social licence to operate is a key asset allowing for effectively industry in the area. While Rio Tinto is a signatory of the VPSHR, it has ensured that it remains accountable by implementing these principles in its operations worldwide. It first does this by identifying areas of risk as well as the triggers of conflict. It also actively participates in embedding human rights standards within its security practices. This is important as the costs for the corporation are very high if conflict breaks out.


The final panelist, Chris Harland, spoke of international humanitarian law’s (IHL) relation to the above issues. He highlighted that there are significant risks to a corporation operating in areas of armed conflict and that businesses have to understand the applicable law. Having said this, he briefly summarized the general principle of distinction between civilian and military objects noting how civilians or civilian objects tied to an organization may become legitimate targets through direct participation in hostilities or their use for a military purpose. He also discussed proportionality and how civilian elements can, in some circumstances become legal collateral damage where the military objective outweighs the civilian damage. Another risk is associated with the commission of war crimes or crimes against humanity which corporations must be careful to avoid aiding and abetting. Having said this, IHL also provides significant benefits as in the vast majority of circumstances civilian objects will benefit from protection as will the corporation’s private assets.


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