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Rio Tinto corporate relations boss exits following Juukan rock shelters destruction

Rio Tinto’s group executive of corporate relations, Simone Niven, will leave the business on 31 December, alongside CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques and chief executive of iron ore, Chris Salisbury, following the destruction of Aboriginal cultural heritage site, the Juukan Gorge rock shelters, in May this year.

The changes to the executive committee were announced by the board to the ASX last week. The board stated the decision came after “significant stakeholders have expressed concerns about executive accountability” for the failings identified in RioTinto’s Board Review of Cultural Heritage Management that was published in August.

Initially, Rio Tinto proposed a reduction in the bonuses of key executives involved in the Juukan Gorge blast decision, which would have cost Jacques $4.9m. Despite the context of their departures Niven, Jacques and Salisbury will all be entitled to long-term bonuses, in line with Rio Tinto’s group remuneration policy and their applicable contract terms.

Rio Tinto’s Simone Niven will be leaving the business

Rio Tinto chairman, Simon Thompson, said “all three individuals, like the rest of the board, deeply regret the destruction of the Juukan rock shelters”.

“What happened at Juukan was wrong and we are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation,” he said.

“We are also determined to regain the trust of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people and other Traditional Owners.

“We have listened to our stakeholders’ concerns that a lack of individual accountability undermines the Group’s ability to rebuild that trust and to move forward to implement the changes identified in the board review.”

Niven has been with the business since 2013. She started as global head of media and corporate communications before being elevated to global head of external affairs, communities and communications, and later group executive. As reported in the AFR, Niven earned a $3.23m salary in 2019.

Niven’s departure also comes after Rio Tinto announced it would establish a social performance assurance function which would report directly to group executive of HSE, technical and projects, Mark Davies, in order to strengthen oversight of communities and heritage practices.

The destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelters created a nation-wide furore. The caves provided evidence of continuous human habitation dating back 46,000 years, however the destruction was approved by the West Australian Government as an exemption to section 18 of the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972, “where land users conclude that impact to a Site is unavoidable”. The government’s decision is now under review.

The explosion gave Rio Tinto access to a reported extra eight million tonnes of high-grade iron ore.

“Rio Tinto is a financially and operationally robust business with world-class assets, a clear strategy and outstanding people. We are determined to learn the lessons from Juukan and to re-establish our reputation as a leader in communities and heritage management,” Thompson concluded.

Jacques will remain CEO until the appointment of his successor or 31 March 2021.

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