As we move into the New Year the trade in natural resources has already claimed lives. 37 protestors dead in Sudan, and reports of up to 300 protestors killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (the reports are unconfirmed due to the internet- and text-message blocking system activated by the Kabila Government).
These deaths may seem normal and completely unrelated to your life. And you should be correct in that assumption. However, some of the money paying the wages of security forces, bulk-buying tear gas to be used on protestors, and lining the Swiss bank accounts of distant dictators may be yours—the money you have spent on goods made from Sudanese oil and Congolese minerals.
How does this happen? I live in a country that respects human rights and democracy, don’t I?
The legal status quo of the natural resource trade is a lot murkier than many would believe. It is based on the 17th century legal principle of effectiveness or ‘might makes right’, which once legally justified the slave trade. This principle says that if a person or group (state or non-state) can exercise coercive control by violence or otherwise over an area rich in natural resources, that person or group has the right to sell those resources on the international market. This is the rule that sends your money to authoritarians and armed groups in places like Sudan and the DRC.
There is an assumption that all natural resources are acceptable to purchase, regardless of how the funds that paid for the resources will be used. The DRC and Sudan are cases in point. Both countries rely on revenues from the sale of their countries’ resource wealth. However, the country’s resource revenues are neither controlled by nor distributed to the people. In fact, the country’s resource wealth ‘curses’ the people to oppression, violence and poverty.
You will likely be aware that the DRC is one of the most volatile and under-developed countries in the world; you may not be aware that it is also one of the most blessed in terms of natural resource wealth. Yet the benefits of this wealth do not reach the people, who have little say in the use of their nation’s resources. The country is currently experiencing the second-largest Ebola epidemic in history, and 1.2m people in Ebola-affected regions were banned from voting in the December 30th election. Election violence has led to a surge in refugees to neighbouring countries, particularly Uganda. Short-notice delays in the election led to many expatriates who had returned to vote having to leave without voting. Elections in the DRC have been a long time coming, having been originally due in 2016, and there are still hopes for the first democratic transition of power since independence in 1960. However, entrenched interests benefitting from the extraction of the country’s resources will likely protect their status quo of under-development and regional violence.
Sudan has experienced sporadic protests against the reign of President Omar Al-Bashir since 2011, when South Sudan seceded after 30 years of protracted civil conflict over the unequal distribution of the benefits of the oil wealth. The large Sudanese security forces, inflated from defence spending during the war, have used horrifying tactics to quash any signs of opposition; however, protests have continued to increase. The current protests began because of rising food prices and have grown to a wider protest against the mismanagement of the economy.
Sudan’s primary income pre-2011 was from the country’s significant oil reserves, however upon secession these fell primarily to South Sudan, with Sudan retaining revenues from the oil infrastructure and refining facilities north of the new border. The pre-2011 oil revenues had been used for white elephant projects benefitting the wealthy in the North, on security services, and on a system of cronyism serving to keep the President in power. The sudden drop-off in resource revenues threatens the position of President Omar Al-Bashir. The population is now protesting against his economic mismanagement and the resulting food shortages and currency fluctuations. His crackdown has been brutal. Tear gas and live ammunition fired into crowds, the arrest of trauma doctors attending to protestors, and journalists illegally detained.
These examples are just two pulled from today’s headlines. More crises with multiple causes and no clear solution will reach the headlines as we settle into 2019, and many will simmer consistently without making the news. Sometimes it feels like these crises seem too huge to comprehend, let alone to address.
However, there is hope.
There is a human right of peoples to have a voice in the management of their countries’ natural resource wealth. This right is affirmed in both the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights. Furthermore, this right is explicitly declared in 17 national constitutions, as well as the African Charter on Human & People’s Rights and the Arab Charter on Human Rights. The UN General Assembly has increasingly interpreted this as a right of peoples against their state.
The tide is turning, and if this human right were recognised in global natural resource trading, then the billions flowing into the hands of those oppressing vulnerable populations would stop. Without these financial flows, their grip on power would weaken, and the people would be empowered to have their say on how to spend resource revenues, as is beginning to happen in Sudan.
Clean Trade, a new charity, is calling on developed-country governments such as the UK to enact Clean Trade Acts restricting the purchase of oil, metals and gems from those states not respecting this human right. We are also calling on responsible investors, such as asset managers and pension funds, to ask the extractives companies they are invested in to review their contracts with these regimes. We are also using domestic and international legal channels to call for the enforcement of all peoples’ right to their natural resources.
See the solution. Join us in calling for Clean Trade.
- Nicola Cullen
 Richard Cockett, ‘Sudan: The Failure and Division of an African State’ (2016), p. 26