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MONTREAL, QUEBEC–The UN has failed the Congo tragically ever since the mineral-rich republic gained independence from Belgium in 1960. The alleged complicity of UN peacekeepers in the overthrow and assassination of elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in 1961 gave way to a disastrous series of wars that continue to claim millions of lives.
But the UN got one thing right in 2000: the Security Council mandated a panel of experts to investigate Western involvement in the extraction of the vast natural resources of Africa's bleeding giant.
It was an unprecedented initiative. The US, Britain and France, the three major Western veto powers in the Security Council – and three major beneficiaries of the pillage of the Congo under the prolonged dictatorship of General Mobutu from the early 1960s well into the 1990s – must not have viewed it with favour.
After the genocides in Rwanda, Burundi and Eastern Congo, and the 1996 overthrow of Mobutu by a joint Rwanda-Uganda invasion camouflaged behind Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the latter had turned against his Western-backed tutors in 1998: war was raging in the Congo, with Zimbabwe, Angola and Namibia actively supporting Kabila.
Africa stood up to the new Western plan of exploiting the Congo's wealth by using Rwanda and Uganda as surrogates. The West's Plan B aimed at breaking up the huge country along provincial and ethnic lines, beginning with the two Kivu provinces in the east – just as mineral-rich Katanga, abetted by the Belgians, had seceded soon after independence.
"The war against the Congo is a looting war," the Deputy Minister of Mines, Mbaka Kawaya, told me in March 2001 in Kinshasa, where I was covering for La Presse the impact of the assassination of Kabila, shot to death two months earlier in his office.
Spreading out on his desk maps of the East and North occupied by Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi, Kawaya explained: "Copper and cobalt are hard work and of low value. But diamond, gold and coltan are easy to dig and truck or airlift across the border, even as far as Bangui and Brazzaville."
Days later, the Bush administration named Walter H. Kansteiner III to the post of US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. He had done business in Apartheid South Africa, worked for Bush Sr and advised Bush Jr in the 2000 presidential campaign. Most of all, he advocated the dismemberment of the Congo.
Within weeks, the first UN report was tabled at the Security Council: it was a huge bomb blast that was either underreported or misreported in the mainstream media. It pointed the finger at rich countries and international financial institutions as "facilitators or passive accomplices" of "the systematic and systemic looting" of the Congo.
Beyond minerals, and coltan – a natural mix of two high-conducting, heat-resistant metals much in demand in the electronics industry (cell-phones, computers, video games) and in astronautics – the 53-page report denounced the plunder of the Congo's forests by Western "ecological" groups and holdings.
It underlined the pervasive links between the war and the looting: theft of agricultural products (coffee, cattle), of money from banks, of factories dismantled and moved piece by piece, and coercive use of children by various militias and imposition of "taxes" of all sorts on the civilian population.
The UN experts called for stiff sanctions against the authors of these economic crimes: an immediate embargo on the stolen resources and on arms delivery to rebel groups; an extension of the embargo to states that supported the rebels; a freeze on the assets of rebel groups, firms and individuals implicated in the looting; and an International Court to try those responsible and assess compensation for their victims.
Nothing concrete was achieved. As late as this year, University of Ottawa law professor Craig Forcese, who worked with government, industry and NGOs to define the social responsibility of Canadian mining companies in developing countries, shook his head in desperation, feeling all these efforts had been in vain.
Yet, the UN report on the Congo is a unique document. It is the first time such a study has been conducted under UN Security Council auspices, and it remains in the public domain as an official basis for action. Indeed, it has spurred Congolese civil society and opposition parties to push for the mining contract revision now under way in Kinshasa.
The UN panel of experts produced two more reports. In November 2001, a 38-page annex to the April report concluded that "the looting of the Congo continues unabated."
It proposed an "International Action Plan" that included a moratorium on the purchase of minerals and raw materials originating in the Congo and more support for the Congolese peace process and for institution-building in the wealthy yet impoverished country of 60 million, a country larger than Western Europe.
The final report was published in October 2002. It named 85 companies, including five Canadian ones, whose extraction of the natural resources of the Congo was in violation of the ethical principles of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, the club of wealthy, capitalist countries).
The Canadian firms charged were First Quantum Minerals, Tenke Mining, International Panorama Resources, Harambee Mining, and Melkior Resources. According to the report, which also named scores of individuals involved in the "elite networks" busy ransacking the Congo, three-quarters of the firms were registered in North America and Western Europe.
The 30-page document read like a John Le Carré novel. It laid bare the links between carnage, terror, war, looting, theft and corruption, and between powerful states and companies and regional and local military and political actors as well as various crime syndicates.
While Western governments, including Canada, ignored these findings, and the mainstream media trivialized them, the reports got quickly bogged down in controversy, with Uganda and Rwanda, proxies for the West, denouncing what they called the report's "harmful effects on peace efforts" in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The UN experts, including Jim Freedman of Canada, responded by accusing Rwanda and Uganda of "disguising" their occupation of the Congo by dressing their soldiers in militia outfits and staging fake "withdrawals" from Congolese territory.
The Canadian UN ambassador defended them, saying, "The alleged violations were not specified," and, "The OECD ethical principles are voluntary, not compulsory."
At a June 2003 meeting in Ottawa, Jim Freedman said, "Rebellions have become commercial enterprises. Wars have doubled in the '90s. Societies have become militarized. Conflicts are becoming commercialized. Wars open the way to profits.
"Multinational corporations don't respond to moral appeals," he said, noting that the OECD simply calls on them to respect human rights, fight corruption, and show a civic spirit and transparency.
The other UN experts reject that interpretation. "The OECD principles give governments a tool to pressure their companies, and if they don't act, they become accomplices" in the crimes their companies commit, said the panel when it published its October 2002 report.
"How is it that Canadian tourists can be sued here for abuse of children overseas, but Canadian firms have impunity when it comes to looting of resources, human rights violations and devastation of the environment?" asked Ed Broadbent, former President of Rights and Democracy, and former leader of the New Democratic Party.
Pushes for reform of mining laws gathered momentum when, in June 2005, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade called on the government to compel extractive companies operating overseas to abide by stricter judicial, social and environmental norms. "It's a real breakthrough," said Joan Kuyek of MiningWatch.
The then-Liberal government quickly adopted one of the committee's recommendations by setting up a "National Contact Point" (NCP) to investigate violations of the OECD principles by mining companies.
The office turned out to be largely ceremonial, but the government also initiated a series of cross-Canada roundtables on the issue, involving civil servants, representatives of the extractive industries, experts and human rights and other civil society organizations.
This exercise produced a 70-page consensus report in March 2007 which called on Canada to show world leadership by compelling its extractive companies to respect stricter human rights, developmental and environmental norms overseas.
It noted that mining amounts to four per cent of Canadian GDP ($50.7 billion) and energy accounts for 5.9 per cent ($75.2 billion), supporting 638,000 jobs, and it asked that the "National Contact Point" (NCP) be replaced by a full-fledged Ombudsman equipped with biting judicial and investigatory powers.
The new Conservative government received the report, and seems to have locked it away. Meanwhile, Anvil Mining was involved in a massacre of Congolese civilians in Kilwa. And, as former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, "Two tsunamis a year" (resulting in 500,000 victims) continue to hit Eastern Congo, as a result of the "looters' war."
Catapulted by the "peace process" and held aloft by 20,000 Blue Helmets of the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila, son of Laurent-Désiré, is trying to keep the DRC safe for foreign investors. He is no Chavez or Morales, but Congolese civil society is pressing him hard to regain control of the country's resources for its own development.
The UN reports have played a pivotal role in this ongoing process. The experts’ panel tabled two more reports on the issue, well into 2003. Some were censored; most are unavailable today even on the UN website.
Jooneed Khan writes on foreign affairs for La Presse.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.