Three Monkeys Online

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Getting away with Murder. Corporate Responsibility in the Congo.

One of the most important points highlighted by RAID, is exactly this: that the OECD Governments do have obligations under the Guidelines, while corporations do not. The Governments who are signatories to the guidelines have the obligation to establish national contact points, where complaints can be filed and investigated. The ties between Government and Industry are well illustrated here though, when you see that for most Governments the national contact points are established in the Department of Trade and Industry, traditionally a department charged with protecting the interests of Business abroad.

While the Congo has proved a tragic example of the need for stronger regulations governing Corporate action in conflict zones, recently we've seen a US presidential executive order (13303) issued in relation to Iraq, giving legal immunity to Oil companies operating in Iraq, so things are getting worse rather than better in terms of regulating companies. Feeney agrees &ldquoIt's a real step backwards. By having to issue such a decree it's almost an admission of guilt. By having to set up some sort of immunity to prosecution it just highlights that there are a lot of things to hide and cover up. I'm sure it'll be challenged by every means possible. We can't square the circle. On the one hand we have our Governments going around preaching the need for good governance to the rest of the world, particularly Africa and the Middle East – it's part and parcel now of most aid programmes now to set up anti-corruption units to fight fraud – and at the same time we're aiding and abetting our own companies that are every bit as guilty in profiteering, embezzlement and in the case of the Congo amongst other cases, of prolonging conflict. That glaring contradiction is increasingly unacceptable. People can see through it. How can we expect Governments in the Congo and Rwanda, and indeed Iraq, to fight corruption and profiteering if we're not willing to point out when companies have stepped beyond the limits of acceptable behaviour, and the tissue of pretexts that we outline in our executive summary, that suggests that nothing can be done, is clearly wrong. There is no real impediment to using this administrative procedure, the only impediment is political will”.

The UN panel report though had its weaknesses, even before revisions were made to the final report, and just as many Governments had reservations about the UN panel, so too had many NGOs including RAID, but for different reasons: &ldquoWe think for a long time there's been a feeling that you shouldn't have a series of ad hoc panels with no clear rationale for the membership of the panel. You haven't always had the right people with the right skills. In the case of the DRC panel, I think we could have done with a much stronger legal component. There were weaknesses. One of our strongest recommendations is that the UN should establish a permanent body with a roster of experts with clear procedures for examining future problems of this kind. That would get around some of the genuine failings of the panels as they've operated. At the core of the panel's reports, though, there are some truths that need to come out”.

In the wake of the UN panel report, which it seems few people are satisfied with, what lessons can be learned? &ldquoI think it makes it very clear that we need much greater independence from business interests when we're judging corporate behaviour. If we can't move towards binding regulations in the short term, then, at the very least, with the OECD guidelines the text needs to be made much stronger and less ambiguous. We need to have a complaints mechanism that is truly independent of business. At the moment with the UK, and most other national contact points, it's housed in the Department of Trade and Industry. It's the first concern of the officials to protect the company, not to seek the truth or to act as an honest broker”.

In the recent past, Corporations have felt the wrath of consumer boycotts when their questionable activities have been brought to light. The companies involved in the Congo though are a different kettle of fish, being diamond producers, mining companies etc – hardly easy targets for a boycott by the man on the street. Are they untouchable then? &ldquoWell, I wouldn't say that they're untouchable” explains Feeney. “Diamond Companies, to take one example, are very exposed, and are very nervous about their reputation. They are the weakest link and very nervous about what will happen next. The other companies are possibly harder to define. Companies at the processing end of minerals that people have never heard of, like germamium, so a consumer boycott, even if it was desirable is not going to have much effect. I think there are other ways. We can make it difficult for companies to get export credits. If they are in breach of the guidelines should they receive support from Governments or indeed the world bank? We can raise questions through the shareholder action. We can go to the banks and get them to assess whether they're suitable clients. There's no one solution. We need to unite and take multiple actions, and get our Parliamentarians interested.

We see this as part of the long struggle to build consensus on the need to adopt binding legal regulations on corporate responsibility. It's a long road and it's not going to come easily. We have companies that have responded violently to the idea of some UN human rights norms for business being adopted by the Human Rights Commission, very strident denunciations by the international chamber of commerce, by the US confederation of industry, and the UK's CBI, all near hysterical about the impropriety of making companies responsible for Human Rights, which they say are the domain of Governments. So we’re not going to win this battle easily, we need to show and shame hypocrisy, and we need to put pressure not only on companies but also on our Governments to stand firm, and not, as was beginning to happen, allowing companies to browbeat them into exonerating them from situations”.

OECD Watch – a network of NGO’s promoting Corporate Accountability

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report on the War in the Congo

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