A British law firm said on Tuesday it had brought a case against the world's most important accreditor of gold refineries for renewing a refiner's certification despite alleged human rights abuses at a mine supplying it with gold.
The law firm, Leigh Day, filed the case in London's High Court against the London Bullion Market Association (LBMA), an industry body whose rules for gold refineries require that they source gold responsibly.
The firm is representing the families of two artisanal miners allegedly killed in 2019 by security personnel at the North Mara gold mine in Tanzania.
LBMA certification prohibits refiners from handling gold from sources contributing to human rights abuses, conflict, crime or environmental degradation.
"There is a long and troubling history of allegations of human rights abuses committed against local people in and around the mine," Leigh Day said.
"However, the LBMA continued (and continues) to issue a 'Responsible Gold Certificate' to the company which refines the gold."
The LBMA, which began accrediting the refiner, MMTC-PAMP, in 2014, said it believed the case had no merit because its rules were clear and had been followed.
North Mara's owner, Canadian mining firm Barrick Gold, said that since assuming operational control of North Mara from a subsidiary in 2019, it had "invited and worked with numerous national and local NGOs, appointed numerous independent human rights specialists, as well as undertaken third-party independent assessments".
It said it had acted on assessors' recommendations and that a review by the LBMA of sourcing from the mine had not found any "zero-tolerance" violations of its rules. "Barrick continues to operate transparently and responsibly," it added.
MMTC-PAMP, which is in India, said it stood by its due diligence procedures.
The refiner said it had hired Synergy Global Consulting to visit North Mara in 2020 and 2022 and shared a summary of a report by Synergy from September which said management of risks and security forces had improved at North Mara, and recommended MMTC-PAMP continue to work with the mine.
Synergy did not respond to a request for comment.
Locals living around North Mara often enter its territory to dig for rocks containing a little gold, which they process and sell, according to a letter of claim issued by Leigh Day and seen by Reuters.
The case alleges that the two artisanal miners, both aged 23, went to the mine to dig gold and were shot by security guards or police, dying from their wounds.
Reuters could not independently confirm this version of events.
Leigh Day, which is working with UK-based corporate watchdog RAID, said Barrick provided money and other support to police stationed at North Mara, and that these police clearly worked on behalf of the mine or in accordance with its instructions.
Barrick said it did provide police with some support but denied controlling or directing them. "The Tanzanian Police Force operates under its own chain of command and makes its own decisions ... for RAID, Leigh Day, or any other organization to suggest otherwise is simply not true," the company said.
It said its agreement with the police incorporates human rights principles and prohibits the provision of weapons. It said its own security personnel are unarmed.
Barrick chief Mark Bristow said in a statement the company was proud of its human rights record and relationship with local communities but the mine was under constant threat.
"There are rogue bands, armed and well-organised, who from time to time invade North Mara to steal gold-bearing rock," he said. The statement did not say whether the two miners at the centre of the lawsuit were part of such bands.
Barrick has faced several lawsuits alleging violence by security forces at North Mara, including one filed on Nov. 23 in Canada claiming the firm was complicit in extrajudicial killings by police, which Barrick denies.
LBMA accreditation is valuable for refiners and the mines supplying them because it allows the gold they produce to trade in the London market, the world's largest. Big banks that dominate gold trading tend only to deal with gold from LBMA-certified refiners.
The LBMA in a statement expressed its sympathy to the families of anyone killed or injured mining gold in Tanzania but said its certification "operates on transparent and well-published principles that all refiners must follow."
"Failure to comply with the LBMA rules results either in suspension or removal," the LBMA said.
(Reporting by Peter Hobson; Editing by Catherine Evans and Jon Boyle)