The Curse of Gold

From Human Rights Watch.

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The Curse of Gold

Summary

“We are cursed because of our gold. All we do is suffer. There is no benefit to us.”

-Congolese gold miner

The northeast corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is home to one of Africa’s richest goldfields. Competition to control the gold mines and trading routes has spurred the bloody conflict that has gripped this area since the start of the Congolese war in 1998 and continues to the present. Soldiers and armed group leaders, seeing control of the gold mines as a way to money, guns, and power, have fought each other ruthlessly, often targeting civilians in the process. Combatants under their command carried out widespread ethnic slaughter, executions, torture, rape and arbitrary arrest, all grave human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. More than sixty thousand people have died due to direct violence in this part of Congo alone. Rather than bringing prosperity to the people of northeastern Congo, gold has been a curse to those who have the misfortune to live there.

This report documents human rights abuses linked to efforts to control two key gold mining areas, Mongbwalu (Ituri District) and Durba (Haut Uélé District), both bordering Uganda.

When Uganda, a major belligerent in the war, occupied northeastern Congo from 1998 to 2003, its soldiers took direct control of gold-rich areas and coerced gold miners to extract the gold for their benefit. They beat and arbitrarily arrested those who resisted their orders. Ignoring the rules of war for the conduct of occupying armies, they helped themselves to an estimated one ton of Congolese gold valued at over $9 million. Their irresponsible mining practices led to the collapse of one of the most important mines in the area in 1999, the Gorumbwa mine, killing some one hundred people trapped inside and destroying a major livelihood for the residents of the area.

The Ugandan army withdrew from Congo in 2003, following Rwanda, another major belligerent, which had withdrawn the year before. Each left behind local proxies, the Lendu Nationalist and Integrationist Front (Front des Nationalistes et Intégrationnistes, FNI) linked to Uganda, and the Hema Union of Congolese Patriots (Union des Patriotes Congolais, UPC), supported by Rwanda. With continued assistance from their external backers, these local armed groups in turn fought for the control of gold-mining areas and trade routes. As each group won a gold-rich area, they promptly began exploiting the ore. The FNI and the UPC fought five battles in a struggle to control Mongbwalu, each resulting in widespread human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch researchers documented the slaughter of at least two thousand civilians in the Mongbwalu area alone between June 2002 and September 2004. Tens of thousands of civilians were forced to flee from their homes into the forests to escape their attackers. Many of them did not survive.

In 2003, peace talks at the national level culminated in the installation of a transitional government, but northeastern Congo remained volatile and beyond central government control. Multinational corporations nonetheless sought to sign new deals or revitalize old ones to start gold mining and exploration operations in the rich gold concessions in the northeast. One of these companies, AngloGold Ashanti, one of the largest gold producers in the world, started exploration activities in the Mongbwalu gold mining area. Following earlier attempts to make contact with the UPC armed group, AngloGold Ashanti representatives established relations with the FNI, an armed group responsible for serious human rights abuses including war crimes and crimes against humanity, and who controlled the Mongbwalu area. In return for FNI assurances of security for its operations and staff, AngloGold Ashanti provided logistical and financial support – that in turn resulted in political benefits – to the armed group and its leaders. The company knew, or should have known, that the FNI armed group had committed grave human rights abuses against civilians and was not a party to the transitional government.

As a company with public commitments to corporate social responsibility, AngloGold Ashanti should have ensured their operations complied with those commitments and did not adversely affect human rights. They do not appear to have done so. Business considerations came above respect for human rights. In its gold exploration activities in Mongbwalu, AngloGold Ashanti failed to uphold its own business principles on human rights considerations and failed to follow international business norms governing the behavior of companies internationally. Human Rights Watch has been unable to identify effective steps taken by the company to ensure that their activities did not negatively impact on human rights.

In other small-scale mining operations conducted throughout the duration of the conflict, armed groups and their business allies used the proceeds from the sale of gold to support their military activities. Working outside of legal channels, a network of traders funnelled gold mined by artisanal miners and forced labour out of the Congo to Uganda. In return for their services some traders counted on the support of combatants from the armed groups who threatened, detained, and even murdered their commercial rivals or those suspected of failing to honor business deals. These traders sold the ore to gold exporters based in Uganda who then sold to the global gold market, a practice that continues today.

In 2003, an estimated $60 million worth of Congolese gold was exported from Uganda, much of it destined for Switzerland. One of the companies buying gold from Uganda is Metalor Technologies, a leading Swiss refinery. The chain of Congolese middlemen, Ugandan traders, and multinational corporations forms an important funding network for armed groups operating in northeastern Congo. Metalor knew, or should have known, that gold bought from its suppliers in Uganda came from a conflict zone in northeastern DRC where human rights were abused on a systematic basis. The company should have considered whether its own role in buying gold resources from its suppliers in Uganda was compatible with provisions on human rights and it should have actively checked its supply chain to verify that acceptable ethical standards were maintained. Through purchases of gold made from Uganda, Metalor Technologies may have contributed indirectly to providing a revenue stream for armed groups that carry out widespread human rights abuses.

The international community has failed to effectively tackle the link between resource exploitation and conflict in the Congo. Following three years of investigation into this link, a United Nations (U.N.) panel of experts stated that the withdrawal of foreign armies from Congo was unlikely to stop the cycle of conflict and exploitation of resources. But the U.N. Security Council established no mechanism to follow up on the recommendations of the panel. The trade in gold is just one example of a wider trend of competition for resources and resulting human rights abuses taking place in mineral rich areas throughout the Congo. The link between conflict and resource exploitation raises broader questions of corporate accountability in the developing world. Given the troubling allegations described in the U.N. panel of experts reports and in this report, it is imperative that further steps be taken to deal with the issue of natural resources and conflict in the Congo and beyond.

In preparation for this report, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed over 150 individuals including victims, witnesses, gold miners, gold traders, gold exporters, customs officials, armed group leaders, government representatives, and officials of international financial institutions in Congo, Uganda and Europe in 2004 and 2005. Human Rights Watch researchers also met with and engaged in written correspondence with representatives from AngloGold Ashanti and Metalor Technologies to discuss concerns.

We wish to thank our Congolese colleagues in Justice Plus, and other individuals who cannot be named for security reasons, for their assistance and support in our research. They risk their lives to defend the rights of others and are to be commended for their courage and commitment.