Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Getting away with Murder. Corporate Responsibility in the Congo.

The UN panel report outlined three different types of corporate irresponsibility in relation to business in the Congo. The first is relatively straightforward, the trading in arms to either side of the conflict, clearly in breach of human rights conventions. The second type of business activity however sees the start of the murky ground where corporate responsibility needs to be clearly outlined. That is the trading in natural resources with belligerent partners, profiting from slave labour conditions. While companies may plead ignorance to the conditions, Feeney says &ldquoIt’s highly improbable when the companies claim that they didn't realise that the raw materials were being extracted with child labour, slave labour. It was widely known at the time, and these companies were out to make a profit, aside from the human consequences. What you have to remember is that these companies as well, when trading in coltan and gold with belligerent parties, were also enabling them to continue the conflict.”

The third type of corporate action, continues to have repercussions for the country involved, in this case the Congo, and is in some ways the most serious precisely because of its long term implications. Feeney goes on to explain: &ldquoThe third level is in gross profiteering, for example with cobalt and copper mining. Because of the desperate need of the Kinshasa based Government to get its hands on hard currency, part of which was used to fund military operations, gross advantage was taken of this state of instability, by Western companies, to carve out vast concessions to do deals that were in flagrant violation of anti competitive dealings. The problems with these concessions that were done in these contexts, are that these are blocking development and investment now by responsible companies, thus blighting the chances of the Congo to achieve sustainable development of its mineral resources. There needs to be some sort of revision of those contracts, and that's in line with the UN panel recommendations, and the World Bank advisors”.

There are conflicts around the world, and corporate involvement in some form or another in most of them, so why pick the Congo in particular to focus on? &ldquoThe Congo was picked, because, yes, while it’s true that there have been UN panels active and reporting in Liberia and Angola and so on, but the panel in the Congo, for the first time ever, accused OECD companies of violating the OECD guidelines. That had never happened in previous reports. The Congo report is also unique as it listed, named and shamed over 80 Western companies. So those of us using the OECD guidelines wanted to see how far you could go using it as a proxy for some kind of legal action, could you use it to shame companies into better action? and most importantly of all could you get Governments to issue statements making clear that a breach in the guidelines has occurred? So we felt we had to respond to the UN panel guidelines, and to comment on them. The evidence speaks for itself, and what's interesting is, by juxtaposing the panel's allegations with the public responses of the companies concerned to those allegations, many of them have actually admitted that they were in breach of the guidelines. They've admitted to things like attempts to offer bribes through agents. We're getting more and more evidence confirming a large chunk of the UN panel report”.

The OECD guidelines are a voluntary code of conduct, asking business to almost self-regulate itself. What chance is there of this without recourse to legal penalties, and on a wider scale, when there are question marks over bringing direct human rights violators to justice? Ms Feeney responds carefully, weighin g up her words: &ldquo it's an impediment. Some of the cases might go before the international criminal court, some where there was direct complicity between company behaviour and human rights violations. At the moment the ICC has only got permission to study abuses that occurred in the Eastern province of Ituri, which saw some of the worst atrocities. So the ICC doesn't have much jurisdiction. There's confusion as to where things stand with Congolese law and the three competing administrations. It's inconceivable really, given the state of development, and the weakness of Congolese civil institutions, to see any action happening under domestic law, and in fact officials who were accused of gross bribery in State owned mining company, were suspended briefly after the UN report came out naming them, but then you find they've been given some other type of Government post as they're key figures to one or another of the senior officials in the transitional government.

There are some areas though under the new anti money laundering legislation, which came in with the so called ‘War on Terrorism’ has brought to light some of the banks who were helping these individuals in high ranking positions, who were helping or not questioning suspicious financial transactions that were passing through Western banks. Now we've seen Belgian magistrates using this legislation to freeze accounts which they feel fall foul of the anti-money laundering provisions, which include not just financing terrorists but also embezzlement and fraud. There are a number of bank officials in Belgium who are now under investigation, and we'd like to see that kind of action being taken by other Governments. At the moment there's very little appetite on the part of Governments to bring in legislation that which would really be able to hold companies to account, so were forced back on using weaker instruments and then we find that even with these much weaker instruments such as the OECD guidelines, which are voluntary on companies, but they're the only instrument at present that has some compulsory Governmental monitoring and compliance, and still our Governments are reluctant to even use these in such a clear cut case!”

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