MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Aboriginal and human rights groups on Thursday called for miner Rio Tinto Ltd <RIO.AX> to be stripped of its status as a human rights leader following its destruction of an Aboriginal sacred site showing evidence of 46,000 years of human habitation.

With state government approval, the world’s biggest iron ore miner in May destroyed two sacred caves in the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara region of Western Australia as part of a mine expansion.

Rio’s response to blowing up the caves was “far from adequate”, 35 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and human rights groups said in a letter requesting the miner be suspended from the Corporate Human Rights Benchmark (CHRB).

Netherlands-based CHRB is a public benchmark of corporate human rights performance. It lists Rio as the highest ranked extractives company globally on human rights issues, with a score in the second highest possible band.

“We are calling on the Benchmark to ensure that the company’s human rights ranking reflects the reality for people here on the ground,” said Wayne Bergmann, a Kimberley Aboriginal leader and chief executive of Aboriginal charitable trust KRED.

Rio apologised for the distress it caused to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people and launched an independent investigation into how the destruction occurred.

Thursday’s letter disputed Rio’s explanation of the incident as a “misunderstanding”, saying that the indigenous land owners had brought to Rio’s attention on several occasions the archaeological and ethnographic significance of the site.

Rio declined to comment on the letter.

Large miners are coming under increasing scrutiny for their relationships with traditional owners and heritage sites. BHP Group <BHP.AX> last month won approval to disturb 40 cultural sites, while Fortescue Metals Group <FMG.AX> in May lost a bid to appeal in an indigenous land case.

(Reporting by Arundhati Dutta in Bengaluru and Melanie Burton in Melbourne; editing by Richard Pullin)

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