Here’s an item of great interest, which gives me some hope that the legal fight for corporate accountability for human rights abuses is going global.  Last week, a group of human rights and legal organizations filed a motion in a court in Québec, asking to be certified as representatives of a class of villagers from Kilwa, D.R. Congo, in a lawsuit against Anvil Mining over the company’s complicity in a 2004 massacre by the Congolese military.  ERI has discussed this case with the international organizations involved, including Global Witness and Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID), for the past two years, and encouraged the victims’ advocates to file in Canada.  We’ve provided some advice on international legal issues, but I’m especially pleased that the Canadian Centre for International Justice (CCIJ), in cooperation with these NGOs and private lawyers, has taken this on and has now broken new ground in filing this case.  Now, after a long struggle to find a forum in which to have their case heard, the victims of the Kilwa massacre may finally get their day in court.

One day in 2004, a group of about six or seven poorly-armed men arrived in Kilwa, a small town in a remote part of the Katanga region of the DRC, and quickly took control in the name of an otherwise unknown rebel group.  They informed the managers of the Dikulushi copper mine, owned and operated by a subsidiary of Anvil, that they did not intend to disturb mining operations, although by controlling Kilwa, they had the means to cut off the only port by which copper ores could be transported to the outside world.  Anvil’s management apparently reacted by calling the Congolese military, transporting a division of over one hundred soldiers from the provincial capital to Kilwa by plane and jeep, and driving them around the town over the course of two days while they burned houses, raped women, slaughtered civilians, and buried bodies in mass graves. 

In 2007, Global Witness published a comprehensive report on these events, titled “Kilwa Trial: a Denial of Justice.”

Since the Kilwa massacre came to light, Anvil has strenuously denied its role.  The company’s directors claim that the military proposed intervention and required Anvil to provide transportation, that they could not have foreseen what happened, and that no company personnel were directly involved in the events that unfolded when the military arrived at Kilwa.  Yet contemporaneous documents and interviews with the mine’s manager, Pierre Mercier, show that it was Anvil that asked for military support and was pressing for the army to restore order as quickly as possible.  It was only when it became clear that people might blame Anvil for what the atrocities that the story began to change.

It’s not surprising that it has taken the victims and their supporters six years to find a potential avenue for justice.  In 2005, a Congolese military tribunal acquitted military leaders and three corporate defendants of any responsibility for the massacre, after the initial investigating judge – who had shown interest in actually uncovering the truth – was transferred and replaced by a new judge who refused to hear key evidence or allow witnesses to testify.  The victims then sought both civil and criminal justice in Australia, where Anvil was originally headquartered; they were briefly able to retain Australian counsel who were, however, quickly scared off when the victims’ Congolese lawyers were subjected to death threats.  As for the criminal complaint in Australia, it appears to have gone nowhere.

Fortunately, the victims and their supporters – Global Witness and RAID-UK have led the international charge in seeking justice in this case, while two Congolese organizations, ACIDH and ASADHO have braved tremendous intimidation to bring the victims’ case to light – persevered and were able to find Canadian lawyers to represent them.  Despite having a legal system similar in many ways to the US and being home to mining companies with abysmal human rights and environmental records, there have been very few international human rights lawsuits in Canada.  Such suits are extremely chancy, and the prospect of having to shoulder the legal fees of the other side if you lose – which is generally not the case in the United States – is a tremendous barrier to representation.  In this context, the decision by CCIJ and Trudel & Johnston – one of the few firms in Québec with experience in matters involving international human rights abuses – to step up and enable the filing of the case is remarkable.

For us at ERI, this lawsuit is particularly exciting for its potential to tighten the net of accountability for corporations who cause or facilitate human rights abuses abroad by acting in ways that they would never think of doing at home.  While we remain committed to using and expanding the potential of the US legal system to address corporate human rights abuses, we’re also dedicated to encouraging and supporting other groups who want to final avenues for judicial redress in other countries.  There’s no question that our courts can’t handle this burden alone.  If Anvil’s victims can find redress in Québec, then that makes one more location in the world where violators of international human rights standards must fear to tread, lest they be held accountable for their actions.