by Moyiga Nduru
(IPS) JOHANNESBURG -- The competition for gold in the Democratic Republic of Congo has led to widespread abuses there, a report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch claims.
According to 'The Curse of Gold,' released June 1, tribal militias backed by transnational corporations, -- Uganda and Rwanda have fought for control of extensive gold deposits in northeastern DRC as the region struggles to extricate itself from civil war.
From 2002 until 2004, about two thousand civilians were killed and tens of thousands displaced in the battle for one of the most important mining areas, Mongbwalu -- this as militants sought to enrich themselves from gold, the profits from which also financed their war effort. Ethnically motivated killings, torture and rape were also reported in the scramble for reserves of the ore.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) describes the militias, the Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI) and the Union of Congolese Patriots, as being "proxies" for Uganda and Rwanda, which occupied Congo-Kinshasa during the country's five-year civil war (1998 to 2003).
Investigations by the United Nations have found that Uganda and Rwanda were themselves guilty of illegal resource exploitation in the DRC during the war, in which they backed various rebel groups.
"Uganda's 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," observes the HRW report, adding that gold worth more than nine million dollars is believed to have passed into Ugandan hands in the course of the war.
The rights group says the post-war period in the DRC has seen AngloGold Ashanti, a leading producer of gold, set up operations near Mongbwalu, after having provided "financial and logistical support" to the FNI. This was in spite of the group's poor human rights record -- and the fact that it remained outside the Congolese peace process.
AngloGold Ashanti, a subsidiary of the international mining group Anglo American, allegedly paid eight thousand dollars to the FNI. While the company had already won rights to the region's gold concessions in 1996, the advent of war forced AngloGold Ashanti to withdraw from the DRC until late 2003.
HRW notes further that gold mined under duress on behalf of armed groups continues to be exported to Uganda, from where it is sold on the international market. This has made gold the East African country's third largest export, even though Uganda clearly lacks the ability to produce substantial quantities of ore locally.
"Official statistics show that Ugandan gold production accounts for less than one percent of the official gold exports. When we asked the ministry of energy and mineral development representatives to explain this discrepancy they refused to comment," Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher at HRW, told a press conference held in Johannesburg, Wednesday.
"The gold is smuggled out of Congo and when it arrives in Uganda it becomes legal. Then a certificate is issued to export it to Europe and beyond," she added.
Uganda has denied any involvement in the looting of Congo's resources. The Kampala government first crossed into the DRC to help depose long-time U.S.-backed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko later turning against the man installed in his place, Laurent Kabila, who was later assassinated.
When Uganda and Rwanda starting backing rivals to Kabila, the Congolese leader and his successor son, Joseph solicited support from Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe. The UN has also pointed a finger at Zimbabwe regarding the illegal exploitation of Congolese resources. As with Uganda, both Rwanda and Zimbabwe deny such allegations.
AngloGold Ashanti, in its turn, has poured cold water on the HRW report.
At an impromptu press conference organized in Johannesburg, the company's chief executive officer, Bobby Godsell, described the document as "unfair, unjust, unhelpful and flawed."
Nonetheless, the company did admit to making payments to the FNI.
"We have acknowledged the payment by AngloGold Ashanti to the FNI in January (2005) of an extorted sum of $8,000, and further sums totaling about $1,000 last year in respect of an authorized arrangement related to cargo delivered to the local airstrip," AngloGold Ashanti said in a statement.
"AngloGold Ashanti does not and will not support militia or any other groups whose actions constitute an assault on efforts to achieve peace and democracy (in the DRC)," the firm added. "Should we find ourselves in a situation where there is pressure on our staff again to yield to extortionate demands, we will consider that to be grounds for our withdrawal from the exploration project."
Rights campaigners say this is a strategy that should have been adopted earlier.
"As a company committed to corporate social responsibility, AngloGold Ashanti should have waited until it could work in Mongbwalu without having to interact with abusive warlords," said Van Woudenburg in a HRW press release issued Wednesday.
"Congo desperately needs business investment to help rebuild the country, but such business engagement must not provide any support to armed groups responsible for crimes against humanity," she added.
A Swiss-based gold refining company, Metalor Technologies, is also named in the HRW report, which says it bought potentially suspect gold from Uganda. But, following consultations with the rights group, Metalor has announced the suspension of gold purchases from Uganda.
Van Woudenberg believes the deployment of UN peacekeepers and government troops could ultimately bring militias in north-eastern Congo under control and prevent the mass smuggling of gold into Uganda.
At present, a force of almost 17,000 peacekeepers is thinly spread over the DRC's extensive territory, in a bid to make remote regions governable ahead of elections that are expected to take place next year. Congo is currently ruled by an interim government of national unity, headed by Joseph Kabila.
About four million people are believed to have died in the country' s civil war, both as a direct result of the conflict, and because of the hunger and illness that fighting inflicted on communities.
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