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The British oil company SOCO International and the wildlife conservation organization WWF announced an agreement today ending oil exploration for now in Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet further action is needed to protect park rangers and activists who have been threatened and attacked for criticizing oil exploration in the park and to bring those responsible to justice.
SOCO’s activities in the park had faced mounting criticism. SOCO said today that it would not undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within the park unless UNESCO and the Congolese government agree such activities are compatible with World Heritage Site status. WWF agreed to withhold pursuit of its complaint against SOCO to the United Kingdom’s National Contact Point under the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.
Human Rights Watch has documented several cases of arbitrary arrests by government authorities, and threats and attacks by unidentified assailants on park rangers and activists who have criticized oil exploration in the park. The park’s central sector chief was warned in September 2013 that he would be killed if he continued to oppose SOCO’s activities. Days later, Congolese military and intelligence officers beat, arrested, and detained him.
On April 15 the park’s director, Emmanuel de Mérode, a Belgian national, was shot and seriously wounded by three armed men in military uniform.
Several environmental activists were threatened in the following week. One text message from an unidentified number said: “You think that by writing you’re going to prevent us from extracting oil. You are going to die for nothing like de Mérode.”
Congolese government, military, and intelligence officials were implicated in many of the threats and attacks documented by Human Rights Watch. Some had allegedly received money from SOCO. Activists and park rangers also alleged that SOCO representatives and security contractors attempted to bribe them to gain their support, to discourage them from speaking out against oil exploration in the park, or to facilitate the company’s activities.
SOCO condemned the attack on de Mérode and has denied any role in threats, violence, or bribery, but has said it will look into allegations of bribery, and condemned the use of violence and intimidation.
Those responsible for these abuses need to be brought to justice. Congolese authorities should fully and impartially investigate the threats and violence against rangers and activists. Belgium’s federal prosecutor should consider opening an investigation into the attack on de Mérode on the basis that he is a Belgian national. British authorities should investigate SOCO’s activities in eastern Congo under the UK’s Bribery Act.
Today’s news should not take pressure off the Congolese, British, and Belgian governments to proceed with much-needed investigations. Nor should it stop SOCO from doing its own review of what has happened and to make sure it follows international human rights standards. Park rangers and activists have the right to express their views freely and protect the park without risking their lives.
Related: WWF press release