ISLAMABAD: The Supreme Court on Tuesday closed the proceedings in a presidential reference on the Reko Diq project while praising the government for following due process to reach a settlement agreement and describing as encouraging the assurance that international standards would be met in dealing with labour rights and protection of environment at the exploration site.

“We expect there would be environmental check and scrutiny for the protection of the aquifer since water is very scarce in the area,” Chief Justice of Pak­istan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial observed, adding that a short order would be an­­nounced next week after conferring with other members of the five-judge SC bench.

The court, however, asked the counsel from both sides to furnish written statements if they intended to do so.

Earlier, Salman Akram Raja, in his capacity as amicus curiae, said the apex court in its opinion on the presidential reference should suggest that profits should also be distributed among the employees working on the exploration site to inculcate a feeling amongst them that they were also stakeholders in the project.

SC praises government for following due process to reach settlement agreement

Senior counsel Makhdoom Ali Khan, representing Barrick Gold Corporation (BGC), reiterated the commitment on behalf of his client that the company would set up a community grievance mechanism that complies with the IFC Performance Standards and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, the requirements of which were much higher than the local contracts.

Salman Akram Raja emphasised that the apex court should validate the process in which the settlement agreement was reached by holding it satisfactory but avoid going into the nitty-gritty of the agreement since the federal and Balochistan governments as well as the National Assembly and Senate had given a solemn statement of due diligence.

He was of the view that the court should not take responsibility of the contents of the agreement because in case of any future dispute, it would not like to get itself implicated in the matter. This would be the safest course of action to be preferred by the court, he suggested, especially when political and corporate ownership for the agreement was there, which should be enough.

“The economic policy matter is not for the court to get into,” Mr Raja argued.

Dr Farogh Naseem, also an amicus curiae, however, was not in agreement with the suggestion and said the route being asked entailed serious consequences since judges were not economic experts. If the court did not give any declaration regarding the agreement or the proposed law being contemplated for attracting international investments, it would lead to a series of challenges in future even outside the country, thus proved to be counterproductive, he argued.

“These agreements are fair with regard to Pakistan and Balochistan and in case this aspect of the matter is left open, it will be unfair on the standpoint of the people of the country and the province,” he contended.

“Are you saying that the settlement agreement should be viewed keeping in view the pending award?” Justice Yahya Afridi asked.

Dr Naseem replied that enforcement of the award would impair the country’s ability to float international bonds in future and recalled the consequences of the 2013 SC judgement which attracted huge award against Pakistan. He also warned of the adverse situation which the country would face in case the Supreme Court returns the presidential reference with observation that the questions asked were too vague, adding that the court should answer the reference in the public welfare doctrine.

Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan observed that it was heartening to note that none of the counsel, not even the amici curiae, said the agreement to be unfair or non-transparent and it appeared that there was unanimity that the settlement agreement was in the national interest.

Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2022

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