Due Diligence in Darfur

By Ann-Louise Colgan

Perpetrators of atrocities in Darfur–like anywhere else–are dependent on at least indirect support from other countries. The goods and services outside governments provide, including arms and ammunition, affect the ability of all parties to continue to engage in the conflict. But because their actions are one step removed from the atrocities, they command inadequate pressure from the international community. Earning even less pressure are corporations that supply resources used in the commission of mass crimes. These third parties are an under-used lever for responding to the crisis in Darfur, and their actions should be the focus of new efforts by U.S. and international policymakers who seek to interrupt the violence in that region.

China’s behind-the-scenes role in Darfur has attracted attention for a number of years, both as the leading supplier of arms to the Sudanese government and the major recipient of Sudan’s oil. Despite this public attention, a recent report by a U.N. team of experts provides still further evidence that China remains the point of origin for many of the arms and ammunition flowing into that region. Serious pressure on Beijing by U.S. officials–specifically on the point of halting weapons transfers to a country where grave crimes are taking place–is long overdue.

But while China and other states have been identified as the source for arms that fuel the Darfur conflict, the role of corporations has received less scrutiny to date. The recent U.N. report seizes on this angle, noting how heavily dependent the parties to the conflict are on consumable goods–including fuel and transportation, as well as ammunition–for maintaining their fighting capacity. The ready availability of these products not only enables the belligerents to continue the violence, it simultaneously reduces their incentive to negotiate a difficult but necessary peace for the future of Darfur.

It goes without saying that companies based half a world away are not wholly responsible for insecurity in Darfur. But their enabling role raises an important question about corporations’ obligations to institute due diligence procedures to ensure that they avoid contributing to human rights abuses. Because, according to the latest U.N. report, atrocities continue to be perpetrated against civilians in Darfur, and because the direct role of the Sudanese government in this crisis is known, companies who operate in that country should be alert to these realities.

Manufacturers of military materiel should be especially mindful of the embargo, of the end-use of their products, and of their potential to sustain the conflict. But there is a broader set of industries involved here, too.

Take, for instance, a company that manufactures 4×4 trucks, which are then mounted with heavy weapons and used to transport combatants and launch violent attacks against civilians. The truck company likely did not intend that its vehicles be used in this manner, but it and its distributors may not have taken every possible measure in its power to avoid this. Similarly, a communications company whose equipment is later instrumental in the coordination of attacks against civilians may not have intended or foreseen this use, but neither may it have sufficiently stringent safeguards in place to ensure its products are not used to facilitate atrocities. Companies such as these should take extra steps to monitor the risks and should apply stricter controls where necessary to ensure their products are not used in the commission of crimes against humanity.

A focus on the enablers of the violence in Darfur is no panacea, to be sure. But the role of these actors in providing necessary ingredients to the ongoing commission of atrocities provides an opening, at a minimum, to establish a due diligence obligation that can affirm respect for human rights and international law.

Especially when prodded by loud and negative public opinion and by threats of governmental regulation, corporations have shown willingness to respect codes for socially responsible conduct in many contexts. Adopting new guidelines in atrocity situations could make a real difference in a place such as Darfur. U.S. policymakers should also seek opportunities to apply such standards to states and individuals that provide the means to perpetrate and sustain crimes against humanity. By tackling these practical connections, the U.S. will find new levers to stem the violence against civilians in Darfur and beyond.


Published on November 13, 2009


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