Lawyers allege Calgary-based oil and gas company committed human rights abuses in Namibia

ReconAfrica’s company’s drilling activity has sparked controversy because it flows into an environmentally sensitive area in Namibia

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Human-rights lawyers are requesting an investigation into a Calgary-based oil and gas company, alleging Reconnaissance Energy Africa Ltd. has committed several human rights abuses in Namibia.

Speaking Tuesday at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the human rights program at the University of Toronto requested the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) — a third-party office responsible for reviewing alleged human rights violations by Canadian companies — investigate Reconnaissance Energy Africa (ReconAfrica).

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Following a “fact-finding mission” in Namibia, the lawyers found “flagrant disregard for the welfare of locals and the protection and sustainable use of resources in the Okavango region,” said Nabila Khan, research associate at the University of Toronto faculty of law’s international human rights program.

The program, on behalf of Saving Okavango’s Unique Life (SOUL), alleges the region’s only water source had been potentially contaminated, that ReconAfrica confiscated land from locals and its activities have destroyed several native forests while conducting seismic surveys.

“Over the course of approximately four years, ReconAfrica has damaged homes, devastated subsets of crops, destroyed land and potentially contaminated the region’s only source of water in pursuit of oil,” said Erica Fox, student at the University of Toronto faculty of law.

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The junior oil company’s drilling activity near the Okavango River has specifically sparked controversy because it flows into the Okavango Delta, an environmentally sensitive area renowned as a haven for diverse wildlife including elephants, hippos, lions and leopards.

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ReconAfrica did not respond to a request for comment. The company has previously defended its operations in the region in prior reporting by other news outlets.

A March investor report by ReconAfrica estimated the area likely has approximately 3.1 billion barrels of prospective oil resources, plus another 970 barrels of unrisked oil resources. (For comparison, the United States consumed about 7.3 billion barrels of petroleum in 2022, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.)

Group advocating federal government to give CORE greater prosecutorial power

The CORE’s ability to prosecute such cases is significantly limited.

Established in 2019 by the federal government, the third-party body offers advisory opinions to Canadian companies with overseas operations on their human rights and responsible business policies. Those recommendations will often come following an investigation related to a complaint.

Companies, however, aren’t required to participate in investigations, nor can it impose punitive measures on a company — it can only recommend remedies to both the company and government, which neither are bound to fulfill.

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Because of these limitations, the lawyers’ request was partly initiated to raise awareness of ReconAfrica’s alleged human rights abuses, said Georgina Alonso, program officer for Above Ground, an Ottawa-based human rights and environmental group.

“The reason that the complainants decided to go ahead with this case is because it’s another tool to raise awareness about the problems and to hopefully push the Canadian government to take some kind of action,” Alonso said.

Above Ground has been pushing for the federal government to give CORE greater power to compel witnesses and documents, Alonso said.

In March, CORE filed its first-ever final report following an investigation into Dynasty Gold Corporation, which found Uyghur forced labour likely was, and currently is, used at its Hatu gold mine in the Xinjiang region of China. Dynasty did not provide any documents and information requested by CORE in its investigation and didn’t reply to CORE’s request for comment on the final draft report.

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