Atrocities in Africa: how clean are your hands?

In October 2002, a United Nations panel of experts released a study on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of…

In October 2002, a United Nations panel of experts released a study on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The study found that the actions of mining companies were responsible for poverty, pollution, and local climate change, and were an important contributing factor in the biggest war since the Second World War.

If that last statistic took you by surprise you’re not alone.

The Second Congolese War, which officially ran from 1998 to 2004 — though the atrocities continue today — would appear to be the most under-reported event in modern history.

A study in the British medical journal the Lancet concludes that during those six years, more than four million people were slaughtered in the DRC while most of us looked the other way.

The war may be over, but in its place is nothing resembling peace. This June, Congolese human rights campaigner Justine Masika Bihamba told the Toronto Star that women and girls in the DRC face unspeakable sexual tortures at the hands of militias and government forces.

She described “A tiny child with a gaping, bloody gash between her legs.

A young woman whose breasts are stretched grotesquely out of shape.

A woman whose lower face resembles a skull, her mouth carved away by vengeful rapists.”

Fully 80 per cent of these atrocities occur in mining areas.

On September 18th, six armed men invaded Masika Bihamba’s house.

They tied up her six children, and attempted to rape two of her daughters. When the women resisted, one had her teeth smashed, the other had a knife inserted in her anus. The victims were able to identify their attackers as army guards, and the attack was clearly an attempt to silence an outspoken human rights campaigner.

Two factors work together to keep the DRC in such a terrible state of violence – grinding poverty and immense wealth.

The country is filled with men brutalized by war whose only possession is an AK-47, and whose only memories are of slaughter and rapine.

It’s also full of copper, cobalt, gold, diamonds and coltan, a mineral in great demand for electronic components.

The 2002 UN study identified eight Canadian mining companies as having contributed in various ways to the ongoing violence in the DRC.

Involvement may be as direct as hiring militias to protect company assets, or as indirect as the destabilization of communities where giant open pit mines ruin the water and destroy traditional economies.

In October of 2004 DRC government forces, responding to a very small rebel uprising, massacred 70 to 100 people, many of them women and children, in the remote fishing town of Kilwa.

The aircraft and trucks they used in the slaughter belonged to Anvil Mining, a Canadian-Australian company operating in the area.

Anvil continued to assist the military for days after the massacre, providing vehicles in which corpses were hauled to mass graves, and people were taken to be tortured, in some cases to death.

CEO Bill Turner dismissed his company’s involvement, telling Australian media, “We helped the military get to Kilwa …. Whatever they did there, that’s an internal issue, it’s got nothing to do with Anvil.”

Anvil’s presence provided not only the means, but the motive for the massacre. The rebels — said to be six in number, and in a very isolated area — posed little threat to the DRC, but they were a problem for Anvil.

Their only reported crime had been to wreck an Anvil depot in Kilwa, and cause the evacuation of the mine.

The DRC is only one country in Africa where Canadian mining companies contribute to war, poverty, and environmental degradation.

Here are a few samples from a 2005 report by Mining Watch.

In Tanzania, Kahama Mining and Barrick Inc. have been accused of “brutal killing and mass evacuation of small-scale miners,” while in Mali, IamGold’s land-grabbing and indiscriminate pollution are destroying a traditional agriculture.

In Ghana, Golden Star Resources subsidiary BGL has rendered life in the towns of Prestea and Himan “intolerable” with incessant blasting, destruction of farmlands, and surface mining in urban areas, including up to the walls of the hospital.

During protests against the blasting, soldiers fired into the crowd, and several people were killed.

Golden Star declined even to criticize the killings, and have pressed on, mining all over town, including in the football field.

Canada could regulate the activities of our mining companies abroad.

We could insist that their business be managed in a way that helps local economies, respects the environment, and doesn’t contribute to war.

We could investigate, and where appropriate prosecute, Canadian corporations and individuals connected to human rights abuses in Africa and elsewhere

Instead, a succession of prime ministers have helped to push “liberalization of trade” on Africa, meaning the right of corporations to grab a profit no matter who suffers, and have turned a blind eye to the practices of mining companies, even when there is clear evidence of direct involvement in crimes against humanity.

Justine Masika Bihamba’s family are suffering today, as millions suffer from war in Africa.

No matter how much ordinary Canadians may abhor rape, murder and sexual torture, so long as Canadian companies trash Africa and finance its wars, we are not innocent of these crimes.

Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.