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Limitations of Voluntary Guidelines: The Congo Gold Example

“We are cursed because of our gold. All we do is suffer. There is no benefit to us.”
– Congolese gold miner

Companies operating globally face many challenges: managing across borders, navigating different regulatory regimes, protecting their brands, and dealing with shifting expectations. For companies active in zones of weak governments, the challenges are still greater. These companies must cope with questions about security, immense poverty, and lack of a functioning state, to name just a few. Frequently voluntary guidelines are simply not enough to ensure respect for human rights in these environments. A report published by Human Rights Watch in June 2005 on the abuses taking place in the gold fields of the Democratic Republic of Congo illustrates the limitations of such voluntary commitments by one of the world’s largest gold producers, AngloGold Ashanti, part of the international conglomerate Anglo American.

Northeastern Congo is home to one of Africa’s largest unexplored goldfields. It is also a region in a desperate state. Torn apart by years of war, the Congolese economy is shattered, and more than three million of its citizens are dead. The desire to control Congo’s rich mineral resources—including gold, diamonds, and other precious minerals—has been central to the war that started in 1998. Brutal killings continue, despite a fitful peace process and a shaky transitional government launched in June 2003. Those unfortunate enough to live in mineral-rich areas have suffered some of the worst atrocities.

In this volatile environment, AngloGold Ashanti decided to explore for gold. The company set up a project camp in Mongbwalu, a gold town ruled by the murderous Nationalist and Integrationist Front (FNI), and developed links with its leaders to gain access to the gold-rich area. The situation on the ground must have been clear. FNI combatants controlled all road and airport access into the town, flaunted their guns in the streets, forced people to work in the gold mines, and conducted killing sprees in nearby villages. Human Rights Watch documented in detail the links between AngloGold Ashanti and the local warlord, showing how the FNI armed group responsible for these atrocities gained financial and logistical support, and, most importantly, political credibility from its ties to the company.

Significantly, AngloGold Ashanti has a corporate code of conduct that includes human rights standards and public commitments to corporate social responsibility. Its commitments are viewed by many other companies as cutting edge. AngloGold Ashanti executives should have ensured that their operations in Congo complied with those commitments and did not adversely affect human rights. They do not appear to have done so.

In response to the Human Rights Watch report, AngloGold Ashanti said it regretted any payments made to the armed group, that the payments were minimal, and that such support was not part of company policy. The company undertook a high level review of its activities in Congo to determine how, and if, it could operate in such an environment with integrity. It also publicly pledged to cease all payments to abusive armed groups in Congo and to pull out of the mine site if the groups attempted to extort funds in the future. As one company executive later put it, “we learned too late not to ‘do as in Rome.’”

The activities of AngloGold Ashanti in Congo show the limitations of voluntary guidelines and illustrate the need to move beyond rhetoric. If binding standards had been in place, AngloGold Ashanti would have been induced to devise stronger mechanisms to prevent such an ill-advised and ultimately detrimental relationship with abusive warlords in the Congo, secure in the knowledge that its potential corporate competitors would be held to the same standards.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>January 2006