UN pressed on British firms in Congo storm

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is under pressure to provide further evidence that four British companies were involved in the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

De Beers, Oryx Natural Resources, Avient Air and Das Air were last year named in a UN report which claimed that the companies' activities may have helped to fund the war in the Republic that has claimed the lives of 2.5 million people. The report was passed to the Department of Trade & Industry in October. Eight days later, the UN panel, chaired by the Egyptian ambassador Mahmoud Kassem, was disbanded.

However, the British Government has claimed that there is insufficient evidence contained in the report to enable it to take action against the companies for alleged breaches of the business ethics set by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The UN maintained that it has further evidence to back up its claims but has so far failed to pass this on.

Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb wrote to the UN Secretary-General earlier this month urging him to make public the additional documentary evidence.

"I do not feel it acceptable that the British Government has repeatedly requested further information from the UN on the allegations in the reports, only to neither receive these details nor any sort of explanation as to why," he said in the letter.

The British Government is also pressing the UN to hand over its evidence. In a parliamentary answer earlier this month, trade minister Mike O'Brien said the Government had "repeatedly attempted to telephone the political secretary to the panel and has left messages without response. Consequently, we are about to make further representations to Ambassador Kassem ... to provide the necessary evidence.

"Members of the panel indicated in April 2003 that they were in possession of a good deal of documentary evidence, none of which has, thus far, been provided."

However, many campaigners believe that the Government is not doing enough to pursue the companies named in the report. This week a group of non-governmental organisations, including Rights and Accountability in Development, is due to meet the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Patricia Hewitt, to press the case. They will claim there is enough evidence to prove that some of the companies listed in the UN report had breached OECD guidelines.