BP & Bhopal

Monday, October 25, 2010

BP & Bhopal
By. Parth Chauhan

The headlines on BBC News’ website on September 19th, 2010, read “Gulf oil spill ‘finally sealed,’” putting an end to a five month ordeal for the citizens near the Gulf of Mexico. On April 20th, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, owned by British Petroleum, exploded, leaving eleven workers dead and an uncontrollable fountain of oil gushing into the Gulf. Over the next few months, efforts to cap the leak saw their effectiveness ebb and flow like the tides of the Gulf; the blowout preventer remained unresponsive, the static kill took months, and a “junk shot” failed. It was only until the relief well was completed in September that the leak stopped spewing oil. All in all, the explosion led to 4.9 million barrels being spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. The livelihoods of thousands of fishermen, crabbers, tourism-service providers, and other Gulf-residents were threatened, as millions of fish and sea creatures died on the polluted beaches of Louisiana and Alabama. And yet, as the final feet of the relief well was bored, and as the pressure on the well abated, the end of the crisis was realized. The objective had been reached, and the Deepwater Horizon spill was over, never to spew black liquid death again.
The Deepwater Horizon oil spill was an unheard of ecological catastrophe, a disaster whose magnitude is still being grasped. Despite this, all signs point to the Gulf essentially making as full of a recovery as possible. The oil-eating bacteria that helped eat up the crude did not create the dreaded “dead-zone” of oxygen-deprived ocean water; the massive cleanup crews assembled by BP and the US government were able to contain much of the oil before it reached too many beaches; the deaths of the eleven men, while undeniably tragic, was not a calamitous number. Despite all of this, British Petroleum was forced by the US Department of Justice to set aside 20 billion USD for victims, after already spending over 8 billion USD in cleanup and recovery efforts. Pressure from the American public and President Barack Obama led to BP’s announcing of the creation of the fund within two months of the explosion, and within weeks, 319 million USD had already been issued out. Though the CEO of BP, Tony Hayward, did step down, further punishments in terms of fines and finding those responsible for the spill are still ongoing processes.
Thus, a British company who victimized the American people came under scrutiny and pressure from the US legal and political system to right its wrongs. This was not the case in Bhopal, India, where an American company was responsible for devastating the region, and yet remained relatively untouched in terms of punishment.
On December 3rd, 1984, a gas cylinder in the Union Carbide pesticide plant reacted with water and exploded, spewing forty tones of poisonous gas over Bhopal, a town of one million people. By the 6th, 8,000 people were killed, and tens of thousands of deaths followed in the next months. The poison’s effects remained in the area, affecting 600,000 people at the time. Even today, the groundwater in Bhopal is likely still contaminated, and the children of the region are known to have disproportionally high rates of many genetic diseases. The exact number of those who became ill, passed away, and were adversely affected by the Union Carbide explosion will never be known, but the area will never be the same again.
Though it occurred over two decades ago, the people of Bhopal are still waiting for justice. In 1989, Union Carbide paid 470 million USD, which amounted to around 783.33 USD per person affected. [In contrast, if the BP fund for the Gulf disaster was allocated equally to all 31 million people living (regardless or not if they were affected by the spill) in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Florida would receive around 651.70 USD in compensation.] $783.33 was all the money that the victims got to fight off kidney, liver, skin, and brain disease; for those families that lost males, the main breadwinner was replaced by this paltry sum. The Indian government has been slow in dealing with the victims, and legally, India was unable to leverage the US into allowing for Bhopal to file charges in American courts.
When BP’s negligence in the US came to light, the latter immediately forced the gas giant to make amends. However, in a case where an American company neglected to ensure the safety of a foreign nation’s citizenry, the United States refused to force just compensation. Union Carbide’s CEO, Warren Anderson, was not punished by the company or the US; in fact, he was allowed to retire in 1986. His outstanding warrants to be brought in on homicide charges in India have been ignored, as Union Carbide claimed that it does not fall under Indian jurisdiction. The American legal system backed this when, in separate Superior and Supreme Court cases in 2006 and 1993, attempts by Bhopal victims to sue in US courts were dismissed. Thus, the United States government did little to compensate India for the gross negligence of its company’s actions abroad.
The discrepancy and hypocrisy of the United States legal actions towards both incidents are glaring. In one situation, a major environmental disaster became a PR nightmare for the offending, non-American company, with billions of USD being issued in compensation. On the other hand, one of the worst industrial disasters in history, which led to the deaths of thousands, was perpetrated by a US subsidiary that was forced to pay under one thousand dollars per victim. It was a cold welcome to American capitalism.


Connecting Violence with the Illegal Mineral Trade in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Is violence in Eastern Congo, particularly gender-based violence, directly linked to the illegal trade of minerals? According to in-depth research conducted by the UN and others, in a word, yes. But how? And what can be done about it?

In a past blog, I wrote about the horrible mass rapes that occurred in Eastern Congo. I know, it's not a pleasant topic, and not one most people want to keep close tabs on. It's uncomfortable to read, painful to think about, and disturbing to even begin to try to empathize with. It has been in the news so much lately, however, that pressure is finally coming down on the Congolese government to stop this type of crime.

Eastern Congo is rich in minerals like cassiterite (tin ore), diamonds, gold and coltan, which is used in things from laptop computers to cell phones. The majority of these mines are controlled by rebel groups, foreign and national. To simplify this complicated situation, the rebels and militias are on a mission to control and conquer the villages that exist around the mines so that they have complete control over the minerals themselves. They use rape as a way to subjugate the people. Most families outcast the women once they have been raped and see them as unclean. Many women are unable to have children after the brutal attacks.

Before 1996, much of the DR Congo's resources were in the hands of civilians for trade. In order to fund their war effort, former president Mobutu militarized the mines and other industries, and ever since then more and more have fallen into the hands of rebel militias and the national military. According to a report released by the UN, “Civilians who attempted to resist the theft of their natural resources, or who did not collaborate with those in power, were subjected to attacks. Entire villages were displaced to make way for mineral or timber exploitation and armed groups engaged in massacres, sexual violence and cruel and inhuman treatment in the process. They also attacked and burned villages in order to seize coltan that had been mined artisanally by the residents.” This is apparently what happened in the Northern Kivu province a couple of months ago.

Actress Ashley Judd has taken trips to the Congo and raised awareness about the rape of women and the connection to the illegal mineral trade. She and others have said that we as consumers should stop buying the electronics that use coltan and make our point known to the industries that rely on them. The same UN report mentioned previously agrees with this:

The illicit exploitation of natural resources in the DRC and the accompanying serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law could not have taken place on such a large scale had there not been customers willing to trade in these resources. Indeed, there was never any shortage of foreign buyers willing to handle these goods, despite the existence of reports denouncing the serious violations of international law committed by their trading and financial partners. Buyers included not only traders in the DRC and neighboring countries but also private companies registered in other countries, including multinationals.”

But to say that all that needs to be done is avoid purchasing products with these materials is short-sighted. To make the change final the government has to step up to the plate. Many militias and foreign armies in neighboring countries get their primary income from the resources in the Congo. In 2008 the government lost $450 million to foreign army and militia groups illegally trading resources. In 2009, experts working on the human rights violations from the UN sent 14 letters to the Congolese government with urgent appeals and letters of allegations. The Congolese government is hostile towards human rights workers and their message, labeling them “humanitarian terrorists”. Some of the groups they have labeled include Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Human Rights League, and Global Witness. Multiple journalists and human rights defenders have been murdered in the nation because of their reports of human rights violations, including Bruno Koko Chirambiza, journalist at Radio Star on August 23rd, 2009, Didace Namujimbo (murdered on 21 November 2008) and Serge Maheshe (murdered on 13 June 2007) . There is little cooperation between the government and any human rights work being done, and there will be no progress until the government makes changes. And in order to make changes, they must have money, money they could be getting from regulating the mineral trade.

In 2001, Joseph Kabila became president of the DRC. His father had been president before him by overthrowing former president Mutombo with the aid of Rwanda and other foreign armies. When Joseph Kabila became president, he called for peace between the countries. This is when the UN peacekeepers arrived. By 2003 all foreign forces had been pulled out of the DRC except for those from Rwanda. While the Second Congo War officially ended in 2003, there are still hostilities. It is a war that has had 5.4 million fatalities, more than any other since World War II. It does not all revolve around the illegal mineral trade, but huge changes could begin to be made if the Congolese government began there.

Most information in this blog is pulled from two UN reports. The first is titled “TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE AND CAPACITY-BUILDING : Second joint report of seven United Nations experts on the situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ”. It can be found at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/AfricaRegion/Pages/RDCProjetMapping.aspx. The second is titled “Violence linked to natural resource exploitation ” and can be found on the same site under note 5.


President Carter to Travel to Middle East for Peace Negotiations

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Former President Jimmy Carter will be in the Middle East over the next week discussing methods to promote peace, particularly among the Israelis and Palestinians.  He will be joined by his fellow Elders (of the Global Elders, a group of former world leaders) Lakhdar Brahimi, Ela Bhatt, and Mary Robinson. They will be traveling and speaking with key leaders in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

To follow their travels and conversations, follow their blog at:

What an exciting time!  This extraordinary group may be one of the most influential in terms of negotiating peace in the world.  


A Conversation with Susan Johnson, Executive Director of the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation

Monday, October 4, 2010

This past Friday, October 1st, I had the privilege of speaking with Susan Johnson, Executive Director of the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation based out of Atlanta, GA. The foundation is a major relief effort set up by NBA All-Star Dikembe Mutombo of the Houston Rockets. Mutombo is a Democratic Republic of Congo native and has been recognized as the “Most Caring Athlete” by USA Today. He founded his organization in 1997, and the foundation's list of accomplishments is vast.

The most significant accomplishment to date is their remarkable Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital and Research Center, which opened it's doors on December 4th, 2007. Friday morning, Mutombo attended a symposium in the Congo celebrating the opening of a Radiology and Imaging Center, a huge step forward in the way patients will be treated. It is the first of its kind in the Congo and only the fifth in Africa. Many patients come to the hospital with acute strokes, but the hospital was, up until Friday, unable to treat them.

Dikembe Mutombo and his wife
Rose holding the thriving triplets
The hospital, located in the capital city of Kinshasa, has 170 beds, and generally admits between 100-150 people a day. It employs over 400 people. One employee is the father of triplets who were brought to the hospital on the brink of death. Before the existence of the Mutombo hospital, most Congolese felt that if you went to the hospital there would be little chance of coming out alive. 

 The parents of the triplets believed this, and abandoned the newborns. They were treated and restored to 100% health, but the parents were still nowhere to be found. Employees of the hospital were able to track them down and tell them the amazing news that their children were healthy and would survive and thrive, but the father was still distressed. He had no job and no way to pay for the care they received. On the spot, Dikembe Mutombo offered him a job as a janitor at the hospital, complete with medical benefits that would cover the babies' treatment. The parents were so grateful, they named the triplets Biamba, Dikembe, and Mutombo.

A young boy that was
 burned badly, but
was healed at the hospital
The hospital particularly excels in the areas of maternity, orthopedics and pediatrics. They are in a pre-planning stage to build a Center of Excellence on Women's and Children's Health. Saving women and children is a high priority, says Johnson. Last year alone they were able to vaccinate 500 infants and toddlers and provide them with mosquito nets to help prevent malaria. The mosquito nets alone are not enough, she explains. They are in dire need of a vaccine for malaria, a disease that was once eradicated but is now the top health concern in the nation. There is hope for a vaccine by 2015, with trials as early as 2012, according to Joe Cohen, a GlaxoSmithKline researcher.1

Needed interventions for mental health and gender-based violence are under discussion. The hospital will soon be able to perform fistula repair surgery, funded by a recent donation by the UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. Dr. Leon Mubikayi is an OB/GYN recently brought on to the hospital who specializes in this type of surgery. There will be a group of doctors traveling from Atlanta to begin work in this area.

Discussing this type of surgery with Johnson led to the topic of the mass rapes in Eastern Congo, an area that is almost a three hour flight away from the hospital. Despite a commonly held belief that the Congo is the worst place in the world for a woman to live, Johnson feels that is an accurate portrayal for Eastern Congo, but not necessarily the rest. An entire book by Laura Shannon entitled “A Thousand Sisters: My Journey into the Worst Place on Earth to be a Woman” is devoted to that subject.

Eastern Congo is rich in natural resources, and as such is a magnet for greed, corruption, and violence. A UN report released this week confirms the link between the violence, particularly gender-based violence, and conflict minerals. The report is well timed. I have read a number of comments on news sites that argue vehemently that there is no connection the two. I mentioned this to Johnson. Her response was succinct: what else could it be? When the majority of the violence occurs along the trade route used to export illegal minerals, what else could the reason for the violence be? In fact, with a little bit of research it becomes very clear how the two are connected and why, but I will discuss that in my next post.

A village that received solar lights and shoes.
The village renamed itself Mutombo Village

Johnson accompanied a group of high school students in 2008 to the Congo with the mission of bringing solar powered lights to the City of Hope, a place of refuge for IDPs (internally displaced peoples). The lights were battery powered, and it was clear that the Congolese would have difficulty operating the batteries, having never been exposed to them before. The group of 6-8 students, Susan Johnson, and Mr. Mutombo spent the entire night in a cramped hotel room, eating pizza and assembling 2500 lights. The next day, they drove to the village and presented the lights. Their cars got stuck in a quicksand type of terrain, stranding the group in the village until night. Johnson says you have never experienced something so dark as the dark of the Congo. Because of their delay, they were able to witness the lights turn on for the very first, along with the reaction of the village. Upon seeing the lights, Johnson felt that “now we understand the darkness”. The group also distributed shoes from a company called Shoes from the Soul, a Florida charity organization.

The Dikembe Mutombo Foundation is one of a number of humanitarian relief efforts working in the Congo. Sometimes, when there does not seem to be a solution to the conflict in a region, the best a person or organization can do is heal its' victims. The hospital is a true light of hope in a country where darkness dwells and hope can be hard to find.

Female patients and staff


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