A panel of experts renewed its warning to the United Nations yesterday that the illegal exploitation of precious minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is continuing to fuel conflict in the country.
The Security Council was due last night to discuss a fourth and possibly final report from the panel that has been investigating the parts played by scores of foreign and African-based companies in helping, wittingly or otherwise, to perpetuate the war that has already cost the lives of more than 2.5 million people.
"Illegal exploitation remains one of the main sources of funding for groups involved in perpetuating the conflict," the panel said. It urged the international community to block the flow of arms to those groups and continue to put pressure on companies which operate in the Congo to abide by international guidelines of good conduct.
"The flow of arms," the report says, "exploitation and the continuation of the conflict are inextricably linked. Breaking that cycle will be key to ending both the conflict and the illegal exploitation of natural resources."
The minerals involved include diamonds, cobalt and also the lesser-known coltan, which is used in the manufacture of electronics, such as mobile phones.
In its work over three years, the panel has named 157 companies and individuals that warranted investigation into their activities in Congo. Of those parties, which were first identified in an earlier report last year, 119 have given responses to questions posed by the panel, the report said.
It adds, however, that 18 companies, including some well-known international operators, either rejected any suggestion that their activities in Congo were questionable or refused to accept that they had any responsibility for the continuing violence.
Human rights organisations are pressing the Security Council to seek prosecutions by western governments of some of the companies identified. The plea was made again by a group of organisations, including Oxfam and Human Rights Watch, which issued a joint statement in New York.
The Council "can no longer ignore clear evidence linking the exploitation of resources to the war in the Congo," the group said. "It must insist that member states hold the companies and individuals involved to account, including companies based in Western countries. Business must demonstrate its commitment to change the way it operates in conflict situations."
Diplomats said the Council was unlikely to press for any prosecutions, however. The UN, which has deployed 10,000 peacekeepers in the country, is anxious not to destabilise the peace process now under way and the progress of the transitional government installed earlier this year.
In its annexes, the report sorts the companies into different categories depending on how far their respective cases have been resolved, and nine UK companies are listed as requiring no further investigation. However, four UK-based firms are included in a third category of "unresolved" cases which have been "referred for updating or further investigation". Those companies are De Beers, the giant diamond conglomerate, Das Air, Avient Air and Oryx National Resources.
Files on these companies have been passed to the UK Government.
A spokesman for De Beers, in a statement to the BBC, defended the firm's conduct. "De Beers is the only company that was on the list - on the original list in fact - that had called for sanctions to be applied to those diamond areas within the [DRC] that were feeding rebels there and the conflict," he said.
Controversy surrounds a decision by senior UN officials to keep one section of the report sealed.
The section deals with information gathered by the panel on senior government and military figures in Congo and neighbouring countries drawn into the war.