US Backtracks on Fight Against Graft in Congo

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Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler walks through the Katanga Mining Ltd. copper and cobalt mine complex in Kolwezi, Democratic Republic of Congo, August 1, 2012.
© 2012 Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A coalition of Democratic Republic of Congo and international nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have written to US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Antony Blinken and urged them to revoke a decision by the Trump administration in its waning days. The last-minute US government action effectively removes for a year sanctions against Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler.

The US government had sanctioned Gertler for helping Congo’s former president, Joseph Kabila, loot his country’s resources. He was added to the very first Global Magnitsky sanctions list in December 2017 for “opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals in [Congo].” Last month, the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) discreetly signed a license allowing Gertler and his companies to access the US financial system until January 31, 2022. Putting him back in business not only undermines the fight against corruption in Congo but also emboldens those ready to enrich themselves at the expense of Congolese people’s human rights. It also raises questions about the implementation of the Magnitsky sanctions, an important element of the US arsenal to promote human rights abroad.

The US found that Gertler, who nurtured a close friendship with Kabila and his family for over two decades, was acting as a middleman for deals between Kabila and oil companies that reportedly deprived Congo of US$1.63 billion between 2010 and 2012 alone. This loss in revenue could have funded about half of the country’s health budget, which was already far lower than regional standards, and a minimum of adequate health care, according to a World Health Organization-supported study.

Such gross corruption is a key reason why successive Congolese governments have largely failed to harness the potential of its vast natural resources for the benefit of its people. Most Congolese live in extreme poverty, nearly half of children are malnourished, and only one in five homes have access to sanitation. It might also explain why Kabila refused to step down from the presidency when his constitutionally mandated two-term limit ended in December 2016. When the stakes are this high, this kind of corruption can undermine the democratic process.

President Joe Biden’s administration should demonstrate that it is serious about restoring the US as a partner in the global fight against kleptocracy. The government should investigate the deal OFAC granted Gertler and take appropriate action, including revocation.