For much of its independence the Democratic Republic of the Congo has experienced political violence, ethnic strife and civil war. Plagued by the twin misfortunes of extensive natural resources and the cold war, the Congo has often been the playground for outside influences, be they the concerns of the superpowers, or local regional powers. In august 1998, the government of Laurent Kabila, itself established in 1994 through violence, was challenged by rebellion, sparking off a fierce civil war that to date has cost the lives of at least three million people, leading many commentators to label it as Africa's ‘first world war’.
The jaundiced Western eye may very well respond to these details with boredom, or possibly indignation, after all, these are independent countries who are responsible for their own conflicts. Or are they?
What if you were told however that Western companies were profiting from the horrific conditions in the Congo, with the connivance of Western governments? What if you were told that in fact much of the finance for the weapons used in these conflicts comes from unscrupulous trade, and that these actions help to prolong the wars?
In October of 2002, an expert panel set up by the UN, named 85 Western companies as being in breach of OECD guidelines for Multinational Corporations, in relation to business being done in the Congo.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development was formed in 1961, and currently has a membership of 30 countries, including most Western Governments. The OECD guidelines for Multinational Corporations are precisely that: guidelines. They were created in 2000, and cover a wide range of areas, such as human rights, labour, environment, taxation and
bribery. They are not legally binding, however.
The report caused a furore, and under pressure from various sources the UN panel changed its final report, delivered in October 2003, listing many of the companies involved as having resolved their status, without detailing any explanation as to how these matters had been resolved.
In order to stop the UN panel findings disappearing without trace, the UK based NGO Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) have produced a report, Unanswered Questions. Companies, Conflict and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which makes for disturbing reading: Patricia Feeney, Director of RAID explains why they produced the report: ”Many companies, for whom there remains grave concern about their activities, put enormous pressure on the UN panel either directly or through their Governments to be pushed into the resolved category. So the last report is a total shambles and a whitewash, and is totally unacceptable. You have to go back to the previous reports and piece it all together. The final report was really a testament to the power and lobby of the companies and the connivance of their Governments. In order to brush the allegations aside.
We were very concerned that, despite the very serious nature of the UN panels allegations about corporate responsibility, that these allegations weren't being taken seriously by the UK Government, and that a chance was being missed to make it absolutely clear, even though it didn't seem as if any of the companies activities could be brought under any international criminal provision, nevertheless we thought it important to draw a moral line in the sand to show clearly what is and isn't acceptable in relation to corporate responsibility”.