Congo, Inc.: Corporate Crime and Genocide

by Michael Shtender-Auerbach

The Century Foundation, 12/21/2005



Three years after a panel of experts warned the United Nations Security Council that multi-national corporations and other external actors and networks were complicit in, and indeed enablers of, a genocide that has taken the lives of over 3 million Congolese citizens in the past five years, the international community has still failed to respond.

The UN panel proposed extensive recommendations, including sanctions and an embargo against military assistance, withholding funds from nations involved in the illegal trade, monitoring transit countries, reparations for displaced persons, and investment in infrastructure. Most tellingly, the panel also called for criminal investigations of key actors and legal accountability for corporations involved in illicit trade.

Many of the corporations expressed public outrage at that report, and their strenuous remonstrations to key Security Council member states forced the UN to reconvene the panel to clear their names. A second report was issued a year later removing many of the multi-nationals, including the only two American corporations that were listed. However, many still remain on the list of Western companies linked to the killings-including corporations based in Canada, Belgium and the United Kingdom.

Those struggling to shut down the murderous operations in Congo insist that interrupting the flow of valued commodities from the hands of lawless militias to Western markets would starve the fighters of the weapons and supplies that fuel their killing machines. Thus, placing human rights above economics is not simply a moral choice, but a decisive step toward eliminating a root cause of the genocide. Such an effort must be targeted at the links most essential to continuing the conflict, and must quickly establish a rule of law to protect civilians.

Air transport and banking support must be withdrawn from illegal actors in Congo. Rwandan and Ugandan banks are the ones most directly connected to rebel finances, but transnationals have also participated. No international trade, legitimate or illegal, can thrive without access to banking networks. This is already a highly regulated industry with notable internal recordkeeping abilities; increased accountability may be possible, beginning with improved World Bank and International Monetary Fund transparency.

Developed countries also are responsible for helping find a solution. Consumers can exert pressure, but their impact is diluted by the wide array of businesses involved in the Congo trade and the difficulty of tracking raw materials to their consumer destinations. Pending congressional legislation would block some coltan imports (H.R. 2954), but at best it would alter the product mix, making gold, timber, or coffee the more lucrative export. In 2003, President Bush signed an executive order making it illegal to trade in "conflict diamonds." He endorsed the "Kimberly Process," a South African-led system of registering and monitoring diamonds to prevent illicit gems from entering the flow of legitimate trade. However, such schemes are notoriously ineffective. Even supporters acknowledge they cannot stem the tide of illegal trade alone. Nevertheless, it is politically effective to publicly pressure such a high-profile industry and sets a precedent that war crimes, no matter how profitable, will not be tolerated.

Corporations perpetuate the violence in Congo by operating in violation of international law and environmental standards. The basic question is one of accountability: Should international trade in natural resources be limited to legitimate governments? How should legitimacy in Congo be determined, considering the country has existed without a democratically elected leader since Patrice Lumumba in 1960? How should we isolate conflict commercialism so that resource exploitation does not provide an incentive for continued warfare?

The UN has remained paralyzed by its members' indifference and conflicting interests since the release of the UN panel's report, taking no action against the foreign corporate interests that are accessories to the killing. While the International Criminal Court has the ability to indict any and all parties responsible for the genocide in Congo, the chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, is concentrating his investigation on rebel leaders and not on the corporations that finance them. This is short-sighted. Rebel leaders are expendable; the story of the Congo has remained the same for over 100 years: pursuit of profit at all costs.

The international human rights community should exert pressure on nations whose corporate citizens abuse internationally recognized rights and those governments must in turn punish the corporate wrongdoers according to their existing legal structures. This provides immediate pressure, while longer-term solutions are hammered out. If taking the problem to its source seems daunting, consider the implementation of controls over the diffuse effects of illegal trade. Enforcement must focus where the pressure may be effectively applied, on key infrastructure and transnational financial linkages. There is no doubt how this system operates, and what must be done: any further suffering is an indictment of our very economic system.


Michael Shtender-Auerbach is a press officer at The Century Foundation.

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