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CONGO (DRC) and War Profiteers: a tragedy forgotten by the global peace movement?

By Jan Van Criekinge

After decades of colonialism, dictatorship and wars, on Wednesday, 6 December 2006, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) swore in its first fair and freely elected president since independence from Belgium in 1960. "This moment marks the beginning of a new era that must bring well-being and development to Congo's people", said president Joseph Kabila (35) at his inauguration ceremony outside the presidential palace in the capital city Kinshasa. Kabila won the run-off presidential elections on 29 October 2006 with 58 percent of the votes, compared with about 42 percent for former rebel leader Jean-Pierre Bemba. Although the new president has been accused of continuing a trend of corruption and ignoring human rights violations and other abuses by his new ‘republican’ FARDC-army, Kabila, is widely praised in Congo and abroad for bringing in a peace plan that finally ended the 1996-2002 period of wars.

The six-year civil and international war in Congo that has killed more than four million people and displaced another two million may have ‘officially’ ended, but the dying has certainly not. Every day in Congo, a deadly combination of conflict-related atrocities (in which rape is widely used as a weapon by all parties involved), starvation, poverty and disease kills over 1,200 people. This conflict is for sure one of the most under-reported human tragedies of our lifetime, yet it is one of the most lethal since World War II.

Decades of unrelenting violence, poverty, and disease have created what the United Nations has called the greatest humanitarian challenge now facing the world. Also it seems that the global peace movement has greatly neglected this bloody, but also very complex war, in which so many groups, countries and war profiteers are involved.

Congo has a long history of plunder and war profiteering. Extremely rich in cobalt, diamonds, copper, gold and other rare minerals, Congo attracted the interest of the European imperialist powers only at the end of the 19th century. At the Conference of Berlin (1884-1885) the then Belgian king Leopold II succeeded in getting recognition for his claims over this enormous territory, right in the heart of the continent. In his personal name, the king created the so-called ‘Congo Free State’, in which a brutal exploitation of wild rubber, ivory and timber wood started soon. It is said that nearly the half of the population of the Congo Bassin disappeared between 1880 and 1920 as a direct or indirect result of this ruthless colonial plunder.

Congo gained independence from Belgium on 30 June 1960 under president Kasavubu and the charismatic and popular prime minister Patrice Lumumba. There followed a period of great instability and foreign military intervention, including by the United Nations. The mineral-rich provinces of Katanga and South Kasai, with the active support of colonial companies and mercenaries, soon even declared their independence. In 1965 it was finally army colonel Joseph Mobutu’s second coup d’etat that marked the beginning of a 32 years rule by a western-backed dictator - he changed his own name to Mobutu Sese Seko and that of his country in Zaire. Mobutu and the elite around him plundered the nation's wealth so deeply that the corrupt system became commonly known as a ‘kleptocracy’. This system collapsed in May 1997 when the troops of lifelong rebel Laurent-Désiré Kabila, Joseph’s father, helped depose the already terminally ill Mobutu.

L-D ‘Mzee’ Kabila could only seize power in Congo with the massive military support of Rwanda and Uganda and the use of child soldiers. On August 1998. Rwanda and Uganda backed a rebellion against L-D Kabila's weak and corrupt government - a war dubbed “Africa's First World War” because of its similarities with what happened in Europe in 1914: nearly all the neighbouring countries and many armed non-state groups from the Congo as well as from other 'internal' was of the Africa Great Lakes region (Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan). Troops mainly from Zimbabwe, Namibia, Chad and Angola secured the Kabila regime’s survival, whereas Uganda’s Museveni and Rwanda’s Kagame were the primary backers of the rebellion. Rwanda justified intervention in Eastern DRC by security concerns over Interahamwe rebels based in that part of the country. But there were also very important economic motivations behind Rwanda’s and Uganda’s actions.

In January 2001, L-D Kabila was assassinated by his bodyguards in circumstances that remain unclear, leaving his son Joseph in power.

The war bore destructive effects on the already very weak political structures, especially the de facto division of the country between the western and southern parts, controlled by the Kabila government and its allies, and large territories in the north and the east occupied by various rebel organisations, militias and intervening armies from the neighbouring countries. Infighting and power struggles about the control of the mineral wealth within the respective territories in the rebel held parts have resulted in a humanitarian catastrophe. Almost 90% of the war victims are civilians, mostly victims of starvation, disease and criminal violence as a result of the complete lawlessness. Rape has been widely used as a weapon in this war.

Although a peace deal signed in 2004 under South African auspices supposedly ended the ‘conventional’ war, fighting continues in the east of the country between rebel militia, the Congolese army and UN MONUC-forces (1), causing many civilian casualties. But despite the fact that the death toll of the crisis in Congo dwarfs that of Darfur or the December 2004 tsunami, the conflict still rages on virtually unnoticed by the mainstream media or the general public.

Since the start of the transitional government in June 2003, armed groups linked to neighbouring countries and corrupt Congolese government officials have continued illicit economic exploitation in the country. A three-year investigation by a Panel of Experts, convened by the United Nations Security Council in 2000, found that sophisticated networks of high-level political, military and business persons in cahoots with various rebel groups were intentionally fuelling the conflict in order to retain their control over the country’s natural resources. In a series of controversial reports, the Panel exposed the vicious cycle of resource-driven conflict that has taken hold of Congo.

“There's a worldwide profit interest that the present plundering mechanism stays in place. There are an enormous number of people siphoning off Congo's resources. It's all laid out in reports every one can read on the Internet. There's the Congo government elite, all kinds of European and North American firms, a huge number of African firms, and especially the elites from neighbouring countries. It's a very vast and complex network profiting from the war and its exploitation.”

In its October 2002 report, the Panel also accused dozens of western companies of violating a set of government-backed international standards for responsible corporate behaviour known as the ‘Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises’. The Panel felt it was necessary to bring to light the companies’ role in perpetuating the conflict. An April 2004 report by RAID (Rights & Accountability in Development), "Unanswered Questions: Companies, conflict and the Democratic Republic of Congo"(2), examined the UN Panel’s allegations against 40 companies and included additional evidence attesting to the companies' involvement in human rights violations, corruption and/or illegal resource exploitation. Most OECD governments refused to investigate the Panel’s allegations and in the face of their inaction, international NGOs started to file complaints and public awareness campaigns under the name ‘No Blood on my Cell Phone’, concerning the plunder of the very rare mineral coltan (3). About a dozen complaints alleging violations of the OECD ‘Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises’ were submitted to the American, Belgian, British, and Dutch governments (4).

The government of the DRC must act promptly on the recommendations of a Congolese parliamentary investigation that uncovered illegal natural resource exploitation and profiteering from armed conflict”, said a leading group of international human rights, environmental and aid organisations in July 2006 (5).

In June 2005 the Lutundula Commission, a special Congolese National Assembly commission led by the courageous parliamentarian Christophe Lutundula, submitted a report on its investigations into mining and other business contracts that rebels and government authorities signed between 1996 and 2003. The report found that dozens of contracts are either illegal or of limited value for the development of the country and it recommends their termination or renegotiation. It further recommends judicial action against a number of senior political and corporate actors involved in these operations. Discussion of the commission’s report by the National Assembly has already been postponed twice and due to a heavy parliamentary agenda, risks being further delayed. “For years, Congo’s politicians have struck deals that enrich themselves but provide no benefit to the Congolese public. Profits from such deals have often come at the cost of enormous suffering and loss of human lives”, said the coalition of NGOs.

The Lutundula Commission report draws attention to the ongoing illegal exploitation and recommends an immediate moratorium on the signing of new contracts until after the elections. While carrying out the investigation, some members of the commission were threatened and they found politicians, officials, and company executives unwilling to answer questions. Officials from the United Nations and the Belgian Senate, both of which had investigated natural resource extraction in the Congo between 2000 and 2003, withheld important information regarding some of the illegal deals, citing concerns over confidentiality.

In its report, the commission corroborates the central findings of the UN Panel of Experts and other investigations, which concluded that belligerents were motivated by their desire to exploit Congo’s mineral and economic wealth. Belligerents used some of their profits to finance further military operations that often involved widespread human rights abuses against civilians and violations of international humanitarian law.

“The message of war and transition in Congo is that violence works. Without a firm response, the destructive effects of this lesson are very likely to be felt for a long time to come”, explains Timothy Raeymaekers, a researcher working for the University of Ghent ‘Conflict Research Group’. The author see opportunities in improving the living conditions of the Congolese population by countering the systematic exploitation of Congo’s resources by a small but powerful elite. They give concrete recommendations in the field of agricultural reform, the mining sector and economic integration. Plundering from illegal mining by government officials and the irregular militias has been running into billions a year. "This is money that must be used for the benefit of the Congolese people" (6).

Notes:

(1)MONUC: the French abbreviation of United Nations Mission in Congo. 17,500 UN troops are today deployed in Congo. There are also many civilians working for MONUC in Congo. It’s the largest and most expensive UN operation ever.

(2) http://www.raid-uk.org/docs/UN_panel_DRC/unanswered_Questions_ES.pdf

(3) Coltan is the abbreviated name for columbo-tantalite, a rare metallic ore mainly used in mobile phone technology and laptop computers. Congo has 80 percent of the world's coltan, a strategic resource.
"The consumer may say 'yes, I do like using my mobile phone and playstation, but I don't particularly want to be complicit in child soldiers being used as slave labour in mines where the metals inside come from, and the plundering of Congo's resources”, said the campaign ‘No Blood on my Cell Phone’.

(4) The group of international and Congolese human rights, environmental and aid organisations (NGOs) includes:

  • Association Africaine de Droit de l'Homme (ASADHO-Katanga)
  • Broederlijk Delen /11.11.11 (Belgium)
  • Centre National D'Appui Au Developpement et à la Participation Populaire (CENADEP)
  • Fatal Transactions
  • Friends of the Earth-USA
  • Global Witness
  • Groupe d'Appui Aux Exploitants des Ressources Naturelles (GAERN)
  • Human Rights Watch
  • International Crisis Group (Brussels - ICG)
  • Netherlands Institute for Southern Africa (NiZA - Netherlands)
  • Nouvelle Dynamique Syndicale (NDS)
  • Organisation Concertée des Ecologistes et Amis de la Nature (OCEAN)
  • Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID - UK)
  • The Rainforest Foundation (UK)

(5) Links between ongoing violent conflict in the Great Lakes region and the exploitation of natural resources including gold, diamonds, timber, ivory and coltan are well-documented in a series of United Nations Security Council Expert Panel Reports published between 2001 and 2003, as well as the June 2004 report by Global Witness, ‘Same Old Story’ as by many reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

(6) Conflict Research Group (University of Ghent), ‘Conflict and social transformation in Eastern Congo’, Gent, 2005. This study presents a strong plea for the inclusion of local dynamics and local NGOs in the current transition process in Congo.

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