UN cuts details of Western profiteers from Congo report

A controversial section has been omitted from a UN report on the plunder of wealth in the Democratic Republic of Congo due out this week.

Senior UN officials objected to part of the report by a UN panel investigating the illegal exploitation of Congo's wealth, fearing it could derail the peace process.

Sources say the section includes details on how shady networks of business and military figures, some tied to the governments of Rwanda and Uganda, are continuing illegally to export gold, diamonds and other minerals from eastern Congo. The contested material has been cut from the public version of the report but was privately distributed to Security Council members, who will debate it on Thursday.

The department of peace-keeping operations said the information could endanger the transitional government recently formed in the capital, Kinshasa. More than 10,000 UN peace-keepers have been deployed to Congo.

The debate also split the five-member panel, with some supporting the controversial material and others challenging its veracity.

At UN headquarters in New York, the omission has fuelled a controversy around the latest, and possibly final, investigation into murky business dealings in Congo. The five-member panel has come under pressure from UN management and beenlobbied by powerful Western business interests and governments, several sources say.

Human rights campaigners are worried the influence has resulted in a compromised report. "There is a belief we can ignore awkward truths in the hope that the peace process can proceed," Anneke van Woudenberg of Human Rights Watch said.

Patricia Feeney, of Rights and Accountability in Development, an advocacy group in Oxford, added: "They don't want to rake over the messy past of some people, or to chastise international companies."

After initially focusing on African involvement, the panel examined the alleged complicity of Western multinationals in the illegal exploitation of gold, diamond, coltan, cobalt and other minerals. Last October, the panel accused 85 companies of breaching OECD standards through their business activities. Rape, murder, torture and other human rights abuses followed the scramble to exploit Congo's wealth after war exploded in 1998.

For example the trade in coltan, a rare mineral used in computers and mobile phones, had social effects "akin to slavery", the panel said. But no Western government had investigated the companies alleged to have links with such abuses. Some, including ones from the UK, US, Belgium and Germany, had lobbied to have their companies' names cleared from the "list of shame".

"Many governments overtly or covertly exerted pressure on the panel and the Security Council to exonerate their companies," Ms Feeney said. Some companies gave legitimate explanations for their business in Congo, or pulled out. But lawyers for others challenge the panel's findings, often capitalising on errors in earlier reports as proof of unreliability.

In the report this week, the cases against 48 companies are "resolved" and requiring "no further action". They include Barclays Bank and the mining giant Anglo American. A further eight companies, linked to the UK resident John Bredenkamp and the Belgian businessman George Forrest, are said to be "resolved subject to monitoring compliance".

But four UK companies, the diamond giant De Beers, air transporters Avient and Das Air, and the mineral exploitation venture Oryx Natural Resources, have "unresolved" cases. Avient is run by a former British Army captain, Andrew Smith. In the last panel report, the company was said to have been contracted to stage bombing raids over eastern Congo in 1999 and 2000. It also allegedly sold six attack helicopters to the Kinshasa government last year.

The Department of Trade and Industry has not "resolved" a single complaint about breaches of OECD guidelines since 2000. A joint statement by 16 aid agencies today calls on Western countries to investigate the allegations against their companies.

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