lundi, 23 octobre 2017
 

Authorities in DRC must investigate attacks on oil project critics

Democratic Republic of Congo authorities should fully and impartially investigate threats and violence against Virunga National Park rangers and local activists, said Human Rights Watch. The government should examine whether the incidents are linked to plans to explore for oil within and near Virunga Park by SOCO International, a British oil company operating in eastern Congo.

Several rangers and activists have been arbitrarily detained by the authorities and threatened or assaulted by unidentified people after criticizing plans for oil exploration in Virunga, a UNESCO world heritage site that is home to many of the last surviving mountain gorillas. On April 15, 2014, armed men shot and seriously wounded the park’s director, Emmanuel de Mérode, a Belgian national. Congolese military justice officials and police have opened an investigation into the attack.

“The attack on the national park’s director was a painful and shocking reminder that people working to protect Africa’s oldest park – its habitat, wildlife, and local communities – do so at enormous risk,” said Ida Sawyer, senior Congo researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Congolese authorities need to make sure that those responsible for this attack and others are arrested and prosecuted.”

The Belgian federal prosecutor should also consider opening an investigation into the attack on the basis that de Mérode is a Belgian national. The Belgian and Congolese judicial authorities could join efforts to strengthen the investigation.

De Mérode and other park rangers, activists, and local community members have long criticized proposed oil exploration and drilling in the park, which they contend will have a negative impact on the park, its wildlife, and local communities. SOCO International signed a production-sharing contract with the Congolese government in 2006 to explore for oil within and near Virunga Park. In October 2011, SOCO received a permit to explore for oil in Block V, a vast area in eastern Congo, of which 52 percent lies within Virunga Park, next to the endangered gorilla habitat.

De Mérode and other rangers have asserted that SOCO’s activities in the park violate Congolese and international law, which, as government officials, the rangers say they have a duty to uphold. Other Congolese government officials in Kinshasa and eastern Congo support SOCO’s plans, given the potentially large financial gains oil would bring.

SOCO 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.

In the week following the attack on de Mérode, at least three human rights and environmental activists received threatening text messages from unidentified numbers, Human Rights Watch said. One message said :

“You are playing with fire [name of activist], you are going to burn your second leg, it’s useless to change your car because we know all the cars and we’re everywhere you go with your team. Don’t believe that just because we failed to get your director that we are going to fail to get you.”

Another message 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.”

On May 3, 2014, an environmental activist in Goma received three calls from an unknown number. The caller threatened the activist, saying that they “wanted the head” of a staff member of the organization who, the caller said, had bad-mouthed their interests. The caller said :

“We failed to get de Mérode, but we won’t fail to get [name of staff].” They told the employee that if he told anyone about the calls, he would be “dealt with.”

“Park rangers and activists should be able to oppose oil exploration in Virunga Park without risking their lives,” Sawyer said. “Congolese authorities need to take steps immediately to make sure that people are safe when they try to uphold the law, protect the park, and peacefully express their views.”

Victims of abuses and witnesses to these incidents allege that Congolese government, military, and intelligence officials who support oil exploration in the park were responsible for previous threats and acts of violence against activists and park staff.

Activists and park rangers alleged that SOCO representatives and security contractors attempted to bribe them to gain their support or to discourage them from speaking out against oil exploration in the park and to facilitate the company’s activities in the park. One environmental activist alleged that SOCO representatives offered him US$20,000 and told him he would be able to hire five people to work for him if he accepted the money.

An investigation by park authorities found that a SOCO representative paid a senior park official several thousand dollars over several months to support SOCO’s activities. The official participated in meetings with park rangers at which they were told that they would be fired if they did not support SOCO. Findings from this investigation, which lasted over three years, were submitted to a Congolese prosecutor in Goma on April 15, hours before the attack on de Mérode.

In a meeting with Human Rights Watch on May 23, North Kivu Governor Julien Paluku acknowledged that certain government and security officials seem to have been “manipulated.” He said that he did not know who was manipulating them, but that it appeared they had been paid and “instrumentalized” to support oil exploration. He said there had been numerous allegations about threats and assaults against activists and park rangers opposed to oil exploration, and that he had asked the police and military justice officials to investigate.

 
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