human rights & business (and a few other things)

Virunga: a must-watch documentary

Credit photo (c) Luanne Cadd/AFP/Getty Images


Business and human rights, as I hope this blog has continuously shown, is a multi-faceted field. It touches upon entangled issues such as corruption, the protection of the environment and wildlife, conflicts, survival, poverty, greed, exploitation, racism, development and many more. Because of this complexity, it is often difficult to grasp the different aspects of a given “business and human rights” situation. The superb documentary Virunga, which is currently available on Netflix, does a great job in this regard.

It focuses on the rangers who are trying to save Virunga National Park (in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and home to the last mountain gorillas) from poachers but also from oil exploitation, which if it was to happen would probably sign the death warrant of the park. Interestingly, it also delves into the conflict in the region, outlining its deep roots and absurd brutality. It links the present situation to the Scramble for Africa, starting in the 1880s, the horrifying exploitation of the country by King Leopold of Belgium, well documented in the best-selling book King Leopold’s Ghost, and the anti-colonial fights of the 1960s. Every time, business interests played a key part in the abuse.

The oil and gas company named in the film, London-based SOCO International, was brought before the UK OECD National Contact Point (NCP) by WWF International in October 2013.  WWF argued that SOCO International was in violation of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The NCP is tasked to promote the Guidelines and may receive complaints in case of suspected non-compliance (I wrote about NCPs before here and here). The complaint procedure is non-judicial and conciliatory in nature. WWF later withdrew their complaint as an agreement was reached with the company in June 2014. SOCO International committed “not to undertake or commission any exploratory or other drilling within Virunga National Park unless UNESCO and the DRC government agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status.” The agreement came as the NCP had accepted to further consider the complaint, a process which could have led to a decision against the company.

It remains to be seen whether the park will continue to be protected in the long run. Hopefully, the awareness raised by the film will help. But of course in such a difficult context there is only so much a film, even a well put together (and co-produced by Hollywood superstar Leonardo Di Caprio) film such as Virunga, can achieve.

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