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Rights Group Hails Condemnation of British Company Operating in DRC

A human rights group has commended the British government for its condemnation of a British air freight company accused of knowingly transporting minerals out of conflict zones in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A group spokesperson says there is hope the decision will the open the door for action against other Western companies operating in conflict zones. Brent Latham reports from our West and Central Africa bureau in Dakar.

British human rights group Rights and Accountability in Development, or RAID, says the British government has broken new ground by ruling that a UK-based air cargo company violated OECD guidelines by transporting minerals out of rebel-held areas in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Patricia Feeney, spokeswoman for RAID, says that transportation companies like the accused, DAS Air, play a large role in sustaining conflicts in the DRC and across Africa.

"By giving access to the international markets, you're bringing out minerals that are in effect being smuggled from different concession areas where they're not being produced in conditions that are acceptable, where you've got child labor, and all sorts of other abuse, forced labor. There is no formal taxation. Taxation as such is taxation by rebel groups and so therefore you're giving them money to continue their conflict activities in those regions," she said.

Feeney says RAID regrets that action has taken so long. DAS Air was first accused by a UN Panel in 2001. It has since ceased operations in the UK, and gone into bankruptcy.

"The British government has been aware of the activities of air companies like DAS Air for many years," added Feeney. "The allegations first surfaced in UN expert panel reports in April and November of 2001, and it has taken until today to get the statement clearly condemning the activities of freight forwarding companies, airlines, for their role in transporting minerals which are fueling the continuing conflict in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo."

Feeney expressed hope that the ruling would open the door to closer scrutiny of companies doing business in conflict zones in Africa. She says many transport companies from Europe and the United States still operate across the continent.

"We believe that it does set a precedent by saying that it is not good enough for transport companies to shrug their shoulders and say it's not their job to ascertain what they're transporting to or from a conflict zone," she continued. "And I think that we could use this precedent now to put much more pressure on the air carriers, who we know are still operating not just in places like the eastern part of the Congo, but in other places in Africa."

Feeney says that a certification process, like the Kimberly process used to attempt to assure that diamonds are not sourced from conflict zones, is needed for other minerals produced in conflict regions. She points to supply chains as evidence that many companies in Europe and the United States source minerals such as coltan, used heavily in the manufacture of electronics, from the DRC.

The UN currently oversees a fragile peace process in Eastern Congo, a large, ethnically diverse eastern area, controlled in parts by a variety of militia and rebel forces. As a part of a comprehensive peace agreement signed in 2003 by rebel parties and the government, UN peace keepers operate in many parts of the volatile region.