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The Globe and Mail

In the Congo, Canada puts too much faith in mining companies

A worker at the Chemaf copper, cobalt processing plant in the city of Lubumbashi, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on May 9, 2012. An obvious source of Africa’s new might is the surge in commodity prices.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

While he was attending the recent summit of La Francophonie in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Stephen Harper also met with human rights activists. Here's what he told them:

"We're concerned about many things in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including ... violations of human rights… unfairness in some of the electoral process, but also we're particularly concerned about the worsening situation in the eastern part of country. Canada will be supporting additional initiatives to combat the barbarous acts of sexual violence against women that are occurring all too frequently."

These comments were both reasonable and trite. They're exactly what all western governments say repeatedly about the Congo, yet little changes. There are far more important things he might have said.

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He might, for example, have acknowledged that his government had already funded a campaign against sexual violence against women in eastern Congo that had received a negative assessment by his own government. The campaign was judged to have been poorly thought out and failed to achieve its objectives. This internal evaluation was revealed in The Globe and Mail by Geoffrey York, the Africa correspondent, who also interviewed Congolese civil society activists and found them to be equally critical of the Canadian project. The Harper government, it appears, paid little attention to either its own assessment or what real Congolese in eastern Congo thought.

Mr. Harper might also have recalled that in 2009 his government abruptly cut off all funds to Kairos, a first-rate Canadian international NGO with projects in many countries, including the eastern Congo. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney recklessly accused Kairos of being anti-Semitic and its funding was terminated. Yet Kairos was working with an eastern Congolese group, Héritiers de la Justice , that was planning to set up a legal clinic to protect women's rights, including support for Congolese women who had been raped. Thanks to private donations from Canadians, Kairos has been able to offer very modest funding to this important project. But of course the need is huge and dramatically more could have been done had their grant not been cut.

Canada, as the PM announced, will now be providing $18.5-million over the next four years to combat violence against women. But it's hard to see how these funds can be spent wisely without the collaboration of dedicated Canadian NGOs who have had years of experience in eastern Congo. If Mr. Harper wants Canadian aid money to work effectively, he would immediately seek the active co-operation of Kairos and other Canadian groups such as L'Entraide missionaire in dealing with this terrible tragedy in eastern Congo. There is no time to waste.

Canadians should also have no doubt that our country has a share of the responsibility for some of the ills of the Congo, including the human rights abuses that Mr. Harper deplores. One of the main objectives of his Africa trip was to promote the interests of Canada's many mining companies. Yet he ignores the massive literature on the actual record of the resource extraction business in many underdeveloped countries, not least in Congo.

The evidence is overwhelming that uncontrolled foreign mining operations have brought great harm with them – violence, conflict, corruption, human rights abuses, exploitation, environmental degradation: the notorious "resource curse." In fact, the frantic pursuit of the Congo's riches and its plague of violence against women are only too closely related.

There's more. A new World Bank report demonstrates what many have long argued – that the Harper government's simplistic assumptions about mining driving development are mostly wrong. As the report states, "Strong economic growth in the past decade among African countries rich in oil and minerals has failed to make a significant dent on their poverty levels [and] that the decline in poverty rates in resource-rich countries has generally lagged behind that of countries without riches in the ground." Surely someone in the Harper government is aware of the 2002 UN report on the Congo that specifically named nine Canadian mining companies as acting contrary to guidelines established by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Or another report mandated by the Security Council that recommended that home nations investigate the foreign companies suspected of having profited from the pillage of resources in the Congo during the its many years of war.

This report pointed out that "The Governments have the power to regulate and sanction those individuals and entities" and then added: "Governments with jurisdiction over these enterprises are complicit themselves when they do not take remedial measures." These words are not equivocal. If unregulated Canadian mining companies have been involved in illicit activities in the Congo, the Canadian government is complicit.

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Yet neither the previous Liberal governments nor Mr. Harper's pursued the accusations against the nine companies, or any of the other Canadian companies that have been accused of unacceptable practices. Instead, self-regulation remains the order of the day. That's why 75 per cent of all mining companies have registered in Canada where they know they can get away with just about anything in the name of self-monitoring Corporate Social Responsibility.

For years, knowledgeable civil society critics like Mining Watch Canada have demanded that Canadian mining operations abroad be toughly regulated. Yet the government continues to take the corporate side, insisting that voluntary codes are sufficient. The record shows how dangerously naïve – or disingenuous – that faith is. So long as it prevails, we can be confident that the benefits of mining accrue vastly more to Canadian mining companies than to the Congolese people.

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