The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most resource-rich countries in the world, but very few Congolese profit from this wealth. The Congo suffers from the effects of a harsh colonial past, and from decades of war, and today is one of the poorest, most war-torn places on the planet.
Stories from the Congo war are mind-numbing in their brutality: mass execution, child-abduction, gang-rape and sexual mutilation are all too common. Millions have died in what has been described as the African World War. All the horrors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide are played out in neighbouring Congo today, in many cases by the same players.
When the Rwandan war spread across the Congolese border in 1996, several Canadian mining companies were active in the DRC. In the 2002 Report on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth in the Congo, a UN panel of investigation found that the Canadian companies American Mineral Fields, Banro, First Quantum, Hrambee Mining, International Panorama Resources, Kinross Gold, Melkior Resources and Tenke had violated Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development guidelines for mining in the war zone, and recommended the Canadian government investigate the matter. This has never been done.
This week the authors and publishers of a book about the impact of Canadian mining on Africa are in Ontario Superior Court defending themselves against a defamation suit from Banro Mining. Barrick Gold, another Canadian company with a shady record in Africa, is pursuing the same suit in Quebec.
The book is called Noir Canada. Edited by Alain Denault and the Collectif Ressources d’Afrique, Noir Canada is written in French and aimed at a Quebec readership. The lawsuits have all the earmarks of a SLAPP, or a “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” In other words, the mining companies likely have no case, and are simply using the courts in an effort to stifle criticism.
This is not simply a story about bribery and corruption between mining companies and African leaders, though plenty of that goes on. Mining companies in Africa often use militias for security, providing them with arms that are later used in acts of murder, torture and rape. Barrick’s name has been associated with such atrocities all over Africa. So why has Canada never taken steps to control this and other rogue companies?
It may be that Barrick is simply too well-connected to prosecute. Among its agents, past and present, are George H.W. Bush, and Canada’s old friend Brian Mulroney. Its founder and CEO, Peter Munk, also founded the influential Munk Centre for International Studies. Munk once famously said he’d hired Mulroney because he “knows every dictator in the world on a first-name basis.”
Munk, who once praised convicted war criminal Augusto Pinochet for “transforming Chile from a wealth-destroying socialist state to a capital-friendly model that is being copied around the world,” is an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Recently, when Barrick was locked in a dispute with the Bank of Commerce over the asset-backed paper crisis, a phone call from Finance Minister Jim Flaherty helped break the impasse.
Munk’s reputation and connections add up to great power, but men of great power have met up with justice in the past. Even capitalist hero Pinochet was facing 300 charges at the time of his death. Munk’s influence should not be enough to prevent a full inquiry into the activities of Barrick Gold and other Canadian mining companies in Africa and around the world.
From manipulation of weak, poor governments, to bribery and corruption, to complicity in war crimes, from alienation of aboriginal land to pollution on a staggering scale, there are hundreds of outstanding accusations against Canadian mining companies acting in Australia, Burma, Africa, South America, and even the US and Canada.
Canada needs a full and open public enquiry into these alleged crimes. After that we need a comprehensive set of rules governing the behaviour of Canadian resource corporations abroad. And if the enquiry confirms what so many have said — that Canadian mining companies are complicit in, and in some cases directly responsible for, crimes against humanity, then we need to see criminal prosecutions.
Africa has had hundreds of years of sleazy exploitation by foreign gold diggers, leaving much of the continent impoverished, diseased, and in a constant upheaval of rebellion and war.
Canada is one foreign power that has benefited from this exploitation. Don’t we owe Africa a little taste of justice?
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.