(Washington, DC) - The decision today to end two countries' quests for membership in a global initiative on openness about natural resource profits shows that the initiative will not automatically accept governments that lack the political will to improve, but requires further explanation, Human Rights Watch said.

The Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a voluntary global effort that encourages public reporting about company payments and government profits from oil, gas, and mining resources, ended the candidacies of Equatorial Guinea and São Tomé e Príncipe, both small West African countries. The decision was made at a meeting in Berlin, where EITI's Board considered the cases of 18 countries that missed a crucial two-year deadline to have their candidacies evaluated by March 9, 2010.

"EITI needs to explain why it expelled some countries that failed to show commitment but extended the candidacies of others whose commitment was also questionable," said Arvind Ganesan, director of the Business and Human Rights Program at Human Rights Watch. "It needs to send a clear, consistent message to resource-rich governments about the political will necessary to implement genuine transparency."

The EITI Board, which is composed of representatives of governments, companies, and civil society groups, allowed the 16 other countries - including the Congo Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Peru, and Sierra Leone - to extend their candidacies without specifying its rationale or clarifying the new deadlines they will face. Those details are expected to be announced in the coming days. In addition, Mongolia was found to have completed the process to have its candidacy assessed (known as "validation") and to be close to meeting the requirements to be declared "EITI compliant."

The Board determined that Equatorial Guinea and São Tomé e Príncipe did not qualify for an extension under its rules, which say additional time is warranted when delays are clearly due to "exceptional and unforeseen circumstances." São Tomé e Príncipe had sought a temporary suspension of its candidacy, while Equatorial Guinea had requested an extension. In announcing its decision, the Board only noted that both countries have been removed from EITI and "are welcome to reapply to become EITI candidate countries once the barriers to effective implementation have been addressed."

Equatorial Guinea has failed to show the will to open itself up to genuine transparency and accountability, Human Rights Watch said. It impedes the activities of civil society, particularly independent organizations focused on human rights and on reducing corruption. The full participation of such groups is a key criterion for membership under EITI's rules. Earlier this year, the Board refused to grant Ethiopia candidacy status in the initiative due to its harsh legal constraints on civil society.  

"The governments that lost their candidacies today should do everything they can to become more transparent and to address the problems that marred their candidacies," Ganesan said. "The sting of this rejection will not go away unless they show that they can take major strides to improve openness and fully engage civil society."

Human Rights Watch has conducted extensive research on resource-rich countries that are plagued by human rights abuses and corruption, including Equatorial Guinea and Nigeria. On April 13, 2010, Human Rights Watch issued a report that detailed the limited steps the Angolan government, which has not sought membership in EITI, has taken to improve revenue transparency.