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Human Rights (Democratic Republic of the Congo)

Volume 593: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2015

I am very pleased to have secured this debate on the activities of the London-listed oil company, SOCO International plc, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga national park. “Virunga”, a documentary that covers many of the matters I will highlight today, was shortlisted for an Oscar this past weekend. In the limited time I have today, I hope to draw attention to the allegations of corruption and human rights abuses that have arisen following the arrival in 2007 of SOCO International in Virunga, which is a UNESCO world heritage site.

It should be noted that SOCO International has been offered the chance to respond to the allegations that will be laid out this afternoon. It has strenuously denied making illicit payments or intimidating civil society opponents in Virunga. However, the company has so far failed to provide a convincing response to the specific evidence of wrongdoing that will be described this afternoon. The “Virunga” documentary and Global Witness’s report, Drillers in the Mist, contain further detailed evidence of improper behaviour.

SOCO International is one of the UK’s 200 biggest companies listed on the FTSE 250, with oil and gas operations in Asia and Africa. It turned its attention to Virunga after the DRC Government declared that 85% of the park would be divided up into oil blocks. There was an outcry at that decision, because Virunga is Africa’s oldest and most bio-diverse national park; it is home to some 220 endangered mountain gorillas. UNESCO says that oil exploration and drilling are completely incompatible with world heritage site status.

The “Virunga” documentary and research by Global Witness, the anti-corruption campaigners, have revealed that in addition to threatening the world heritage status of the park, SOCO International and its contractors have made illicit payments, appear to have paid off armed rebels and benefited from fear and violence in the Virunga area of the DRC.

As I have already said, SOCO International has denied these allegations. However, the evidence is compelling. In the documentary, SOCO International’s military liaison officer, Major Feruzi, is caught on a hidden camera offering a $3,000 bribe to a park ranger. Feruzi wanted the ranger to spy on Virunga’s chief warden, Emmanuel de Merode, who has been singled out by SOCO International representatives as a key opponent of the company’s ambitions in the park. The army officer refers to a SOCO International contractor as his “boss”. Under the UK Bribery Act 2010, it is a crime for a UK company to fail to prevent an act of bribery carried out on its behalf.

The film also presents evidence of payments to a Congolese MP for the area covering Virunga who, at the time, was also a Government Minister. He campaigned vociferously on SOCO International’s behalf and helped to organise payments to local organisations to hold a pro-oil demonstration in the park. Also, he was covertly filmed saying that SOCO International officials told him that signing a contract with him was likely to be illegal under British law, as he was a public official. SOCO International’s official “focal point” in the park authority is also on film, telling rangers that those who work with SOCO will get “money, money, money” and those who oppose the company will be fired.

From this material, it seems that there is a clear case for UK enforcement agencies to investigate SOCO International under the Bribery Act 2010. This information and film footage has been in the public domain for months. What assurances can the Government give that these allegations will be considered by the relevant enforcement agencies?

While SOCO International is listed in London, investigations by Global Witness note that the company also has links to the US. Its executive directors, Ed Story and Roger Cagle, are American citizens and are employed through a wholly owned subsidiary company registered in Delaware. These individuals therefore fall within the jurisdiction of the United States, and there seems to be a case to be made that SOCO International, under their stewardship, has breached the terms of America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Bearing that in mind, can the Minister say whether the relevant British authorities will contact their American counterparts about an investigation into SOCO International plc’s activities in Virunga, and ensure that they are made aware of any evidence showing that SOCO International has committed any offence under that Act?

It is also worth noting that SOCO International is, in a sense, an ambassador for British trade and industry. In eastern DRC, “SOCO” is synonymous with “Britain”. Inevitably, UK companies investing in the developing world will often operate in environments with high bribery risks and in jurisdictions that may lack the infrastructure necessary for the proper oversight of corporate behaviour. For that reason alone, SOCO International should be obliged to hold its staff and representatives to the strictest and highest standards of business responsibility.

If a company’s code of ethics is failing and, as seems to be the case with SOCO, there is little willingness on its part to investigate its actions or omissions, can the Minister say what sanctions we might expect the British Government to apply to companies that break the law and damage the reputation of UK plc? Given that private UK investment in developing economies is supported as a policy of this Government, it is surely incumbent on the UK Government and their agencies to ensure that any credible evidence of corruption or other criminal behaviour by a UK company, as we have in this case, is fully investigated by the relevant authorities. Failure to do so risks sending a message that British companies will not be held accountable for their actions or omissions overseas. If the UK hopes to be taken seriously when we speak about responsible business practice internationally and the capacity for investment to grow economies and reduce poverty, it must be incumbent on this Government to act without delay and to investigate fully whether SOCO International has been paying bribes or corrupting officials in the DRC.

To date, the UK has secured only one corporate conviction of foreign bribery. I suspect that cases such as this, which involves SOCO International and which only came to light following an independent investigation by a film company, may represent the tip of the iceberg of corporate misdemeanours in high-risk environments. The Serious Fraud Office has suffered budget cuts and institutional uncertainty, which must lead to doubts as to whether the ambitions expressed in the Bribery Act will ever be met with the resources and political will they deserve. What assurances can the Government give that foreign bribery cases will be resourced adequately now and in the future?

Beyond the allegations of bribery, SOCO International’s actions in Virunga threaten the integrity of the park’s UNESCO world heritage status. Virunga was already on the list of UNESCO’s world heritage sites considered to be in danger before SOCO International arrived. That status should protect the park from being intentionally despoiled.

The Minister may be aware that last year, SOCO International backed down from working in Virunga following pressure from the World Wide Fund for Nature, the environmental campaigners. Indeed, in response to a question from the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), my fellow vice-chair of the all-party group on anti-corruption, on 17 December 2014, the Secretary of State for International Development stated:

“I expect SOCO, as a British-listed company, to adhere to the highest standards. In June this year, SOCO and the WWF announced that it would complete their existing programme of work at Virunga and then not undertake or commission exploratory or other drilling within the national park unless UNESCO and the Government of the DRC agreed to it.”—[Official Report, 17 December 2014; Vol. 589, c. 1393.]

In reality, SOCO International committed not to work in the park unless the Congolese Government and UNESCO eventually

“agree that such activities are not incompatible with its World Heritage status.”

Therefore, the door is open for SOCO International to continue to explore and drill for oil inside Virunga national park if the boundaries of the park are redrawn, an option that the Congolese Government are understood to be considering.

The director of the Oscar-nominated documentary “Virunga”, Orlando von Einsiedel, recently described SOCO International’s statement as “purely a PR exercise.” The Church of England, which owns £3 million-worth of shares in the company, has recently demanded that SOCO International amend its statement to

“remove any room for doubt about their intentions within existing or future boundaries of a World Heritage Site”.

Given the evidence that has already been outlined, do the Government continue to accept the statement made by SOCO International, as the Secretary of State for International Development did—a position that has now been shown to be perhaps misplaced? Does the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stand by its 2012 statement, in which it opposed all oil exploration inside Virunga? Will the Minister hold SOCO International to those standards, and how will he do so? Moreover, what can and will the UK do to defend the integrity of UNESCO world heritage status in this case and in principle? Belgium, Germany and the EU Parliament have all passed resolutions critical of oil exploration in Virunga. Will the Minister follow suit?

Some of the most serious questions that SOCO International has to answer relate to allegations that its representatives and allies used threats and physical violence against opponents of the company’s operations in Virunga. There have been worrying reports from credible and respected local organisations since at least 2012 of SOCO International allies orchestrating a campaign of intimidation against local anti-oil activists. SOCO International’s army liaison, Major Feruzi, has been identified as the driver behind much of this terror, which includes arrests and violent intimidation, but other local allies are also implicated. Local non-governmental organisations said that Feruzi’s

“military status has been utilized to silence anyone who has questions about the true impact of the oil project.”

On 15 April last year, the park’s chief warden and SOCO International opponent, Emmanuel de Merode, was driving back to his Virunga HQ after depositing a dossier on SOCO International’s activities with the public prosecutor in the provincial capital. His car was sprayed with bullets by unknown gunmen. Emmanuel de Merode was hit twice, but miraculously survived. SOCO International felt moved to issue a public statement denying involvement in the shooting.

An article in The Daily Telegraph published in September said that, in April last year, two fishermen were killed by soldiers protecting SOCO International’s compound, just hours after arguing against SOCO International’s presence in their community. The deaths were verified by Human Rights Watch, according to the article.

In December, the all-party group on anti-corruption heard from members of civil society in the park, and their stories of intimidation were deeply concerning. One activist, Alphonse Muhindo Valivambe, told the group that he and his colleagues “faced death every day” in their campaign against oil activities in Virunga. Indeed, Mr Valivambe was forced to flee to London for three months in 2012, so concerned was he for his personal safety.

As per the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, I ask the Minister whether and in what capacity the UK’s diplomatic missions in the region will support the human rights and civil society activists who are trying to defend the park’s protected status. What have the field offices done thus far to support civil society activists, and does the FCO feel it has done enough? Those guidelines say that states must take responsibility for the actions of companies domiciled within their jurisdictions. What can the UK Government do to ensure that SOCO International is conforming to these guiding principles, and what sanctions can they impose if they find that SOCO International, its representatives or allies have committed human rights abuses?

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) on securing the debate. She has brought to the House a case study in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has attracted widespread attention not only in the United Kingdom, but globally, and that brings together two related but distinct issues: the protection of the unique environment of the Virunga national park; and the specific, serious allegations that have been made about the conduct of one company, to which my hon. Friend related. I want to try to address both those questions.

All hon. Members know that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but, particularly in the eastern region, it has been beset by conflict and grave human rights abuses, and there remain endemic, appalling levels of poverty. The coalition Government are committed to supporting the DRC in developing and growing. Our assistance to the country is lifting people out of poverty, helping to improve security and human rights, and supporting an improved business climate. There is a long way to go—I am the first to agree—but the Government, through our international development programme, are investing in reforms to increase access to finance, in job creation and the promotion of opportunities for entrepreneurs, especially women and young people, and in essential infrastructure to increase access to markets.

Our objective is to make the DRC extractive sector more transparent and accountable, given its potential to be an engine for growth and public revenue generation, but for that to happen, any development of extractive industries in the DRC needs to be done in a way that both meets its domestic legal requirements and conforms to international norms, laws and codes on the extractive industries. We certainly expect any UK company to set an example in that respect and not to try to subvert those standards.

I apologise for not being here from the start of the debate, Dr McCrea. I am sure my all-party parliamentary group colleague, the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), made her case robustly.

The Minister mentioned the role of UK companies. Obviously, some that represent our overseas territories and Crown dependencies had some role in the Virunga situation. What action can we take against those jurisdictions for which we have some responsibility?

I may come to that later.

My hon. Friend asked about our political engagement with the DRC Government. We are committed to working with the DRC Government to try to spread the values of the rule of law, transparency and good governance, which we believe are right in principle. Their implementation would help the DRC to bring about improvement in the material standard of living and a better quality of life overall for its people.

We are committed to supporting UK companies in the DRC. Foreign investment in sectors such as hydro- carbons and the extractive industries can play an important role in boosting the development of countries such as the DRC and lifting people out of poverty. However, the Government’s long-standing position has been, and remains, to oppose all oil exploration in the Virunga national park, a world heritage site listed by UNESCO as being “in danger”. Our position has not changed. Any investment in that world heritage site needs to be done responsibly and sustainably, in compliance with local law and conforming to international standards.

The UK Government welcomed the announcement that SOCO plc made on 11 June 2014, in conjunction with World Wide Fund for Nature. SOCO pledged that it would complete its existing programme of work in Virunga and committed not to undertake or commission 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. We also welcome SOCO’s commitment not to conduct any operations in other world heritage sites. I emphasise that we expect SOCO to honour those commitments. If we had evidence that SOCO was breaking those commitments that it entered into publicly, we would not hesitate to press the Government of the DRC or, in another jurisdiction, the Government of that country, to take the appropriate action.

My right hon. Friend the Minister will understand my confusion. He just confirmed that the 2012 statement, which opposed all oil exploration inside the Virunga national park, is current, but there is potentially pressure from the company on members of the DRC Government or UNESCO—it is more likely to be members of the DRC Government—to redraw the boundary lines of the Virunga national park. Therefore, I should like him to confirm that the existing boundaries are those we recognise, and that that is final.

When I refer to potential breaches of the commitments into which SOCO entered, I include within that any attempt by SOCO to redraw the boundaries of the Virunga national park to suit those commercial interests. In the June 2014 statement, we welcomed the fact that any agreement on development would need the consent not only of the DRC Government, for the reasons my hon. Friend intimated in her speech, but of UNESCO. That was important and created a double lock on any such assessment.

There should be no attempts to delist Virunga as a world heritage site or a national park, nor should any further company be awarded exploration rights in Virunga. We continue to urge the DRC Government to respect the international conventions to which it is a signatory. We are aware of the allegations, which my hon. Friend has repeated today, of wrongdoing against SOCO corporately, its employees and the agents connected to its activities in Virunga. Some of those allegations were listed in the documentary film “Virunga”.

The Serious Fraud Office is aware of the allegations. I am sure the House will understand that it is important that the decision on whether to prosecute in any case is made by the prosecutorial authorities and not by politicians. We expect all companies either operating or registered in the United Kingdom to act appropriately and in compliance with the law. We encourage anyone with evidence of serious fraud, bribery or corruption to contact the SFO. The Government have explained to some of the Virunga campaign groups how exactly they should go about supplying securely any evidence they have to the SFO for it to investigate.

My hon. Friend asked about the UK’s broader approach to combating corruption and the implementation of the Bribery Act 2010. The Government published the United Kingdom’s anti-corruption plan in December last year. It sets out how the Government are doing more across Whitehall’s areas of responsibility to increase transparency, tackle money laundering and ensure that the UK is at the forefront of efforts to raise international standards. The plan sets out a range of measures that we are taking to tackle corruption around the world. Priorities include identifying illicit financial flows; the return of stolen assets; efforts to raise global standards for all, including our international development programmes; and the promotion of sustainable growth, which includes work to stop bribery.

We are committed to going further by leading the way on the international stage, as was done at the 2013 Enniskillen G8 summit, and by impressing on the international community the benefits of measures, such as publicly accessible registers of company beneficial ownership, in the fight against illicit financial flows. The purpose of embodying that in an anti-corruption plan is precisely to enable more effective and more transparent collaboration across Government to try to break out of a silo mentality, to ensure that the efforts of all Departments and agencies are directed effectively to securing our objectives.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I have given way once to him already and I want to reply to the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Wells made.

Our embassies, high commissions and consulates are active in supporting the effective implementation of the Bribery Act 2010, which has been recognised as a world-leading piece of legislation. Our posts overseas are always keen to ensure that British companies are fully aware of their obligations under the 2010 Act when they seek to invest or trade in any of those foreign jurisdictions. We are also working to improve standards of anti-corruption legislation and enforcement among our trading partners internationally through the OECD, the United Nations and the Council of Europe conventions against corruption.

Within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a new central anti-corruption and transparency team was established in August 2013. Its remit includes improving the support and guidance provided to officials overseas and exchanging best practice. We have supported the DRC Government in particular to improve their business environment. In 2012, we supported the launch of the business code of conduct, an initiative of the DRC private sector anti-corruption initiative. Already around 20 companies adhere to that private sector code of conduct.

On international anti-corruption day, which was 9 December 2013, we supported the signing of the DRC’s national anti-corruption pact between the public sector, the private sector and civil society. Prime Minister Matata attended the event. The best way forward is to persist with those efforts and to work to improve economic growth and the human rights situation in the DRC. I will not stand here and pretend that the DRC will be brought to prosperity, political stability and high standards of anti-corruption overnight. A long task still lies ahead of us and our international partners, but the course that we have established is starting to deliver some results.

I thank the Minister greatly for letting me intervene again. Will he address the fact that American citizens are involved in the company? The masking of company identity and the individuals involved in companies registered in Delaware is a perpetual problem. Can something be done with our American counterparts on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act?

I will write to my hon. Friend in more detail on that point. I want to check whether, in the case of the American prosecutorial and judicial authorities, any evidence or information that might lead to a prosecution has to be transmitted through international legal channels, rather than just being transmitted through diplomatic or political channels. If there is a legal channel that enables evidence to be sent to the American authorities, I will alert her to that.

To respond to the points that the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) made, the Prime Minister has made clear to the overseas territories that he wants them to follow the United Kingdom’s lead and mandate publicly accessible registers of company beneficial ownership. The overseas territories are not fully independent, but they each have their own legislatures and their own democratic and constitutional arrangements. Most of the overseas territories decided to consult on the question of publicly accessible registers. The majority of those consultations have taken place and most overseas territory Governments are still analysing the results. We are keeping them informed of how our register will work in practice, so that they can take that into account when considering what works best for them. The UK Government have made it clear that we expect the British overseas territories to apply the highest international standards when it comes to such things as registers of beneficial ownership. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he intends to pursue that.

I highlight the UK’s commitment to the region and to eastern DRC in particular. Our development assistance and political engagement are targeted on what is important: bringing people out of poverty; promoting the rule of law, transparency and good governance; supporting civil society; and encouraging economic growth. In pursuing those objectives, we will always ensure that while we support responsible investment in the DRC by UK companies, we expect high standards and we expect those companies to follow legal obligations. We will continue to make businesses aware of their obligations under the Bribery Act 2010.

Virunga is a jewel in the centre of Africa. The people who live there must be protected, and its rich biodiversity must be protected for future generations. We support the alternative vision for Virunga, which emphasises such enterprises as sustainable fisheries, eco-tourism and small-scale hydropower. I finish by applauding the tenacity and bravery of the director of the Virunga national park, Emmanuel de Merode, and his rangers. Their work has had a real impact in bringing this issue to the attention of the world and in ensuring that the importance of Virunga and the need to protect it are not forgotten.