DAKAR The OECD has offered to mediate between British oil company Soco International (SIA.L) and conservation group WWF to determine whether exploration in the last refuge of Congo's mountain gorillas violates the organisation's ethical standards.
WWF presented a complaint in October saying that Soco's oil activity in Virunga National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, violated the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) business guidelines.
Soco, which denied the allegations, and the government of Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the world's poorest nations, want to explore the park's potential to generate oil revenue.
An initial report by the OECD's British office, released on Friday, said the WWF complaint raised important questions about how Soco should meet its obligations to contribute to sustainable development in Congo and that the issue merited further examination via mediation.
The OECD said that if the two parties would not agree to mediation, it would conduct its own investigation to determine whether Soco was in breach of the guidelines. The OECD has no power to enforce its standards.
Soco said it respected the OECD complaints process and hoped mediation would take place "outside the media spotlight".
"The company looks forward to contributing to a further examination of how sustainable development can be achieved, whilst addressing the views of the international community together with the DRC's legitimate right to manage and protect its own energy resources," it said in a statement.
The WWF said the decision had set a precedent for using the OECD guidelines as a mechanism for safeguarding the environment.
The OECD report found no specific human rights impact from Soco's activities and rejected complaints that there had been a lack of engagement with stakeholders, such as local residents, UNESCO and non-profit organisations.
It also dismissed WWF's complaint that a clause in Soco's contract, which exempts it from any tax or environmental legislation after the contract was signed, was a risk to environmental and human rights.
The OECD acknowledged that SOCO had committed to environmental and social standards above the requirements of existing laws, including the OECD guidelines themselves.
It was concerned, however, that no environmental impact assessment of activities in the park had been published. In response, Soco said the Congolese government had now agreed to make the report public.
Soco said that it had so far conducted a month-long seismic survey within the park, and after that initial testing, "no drilling has been planned or is even warranted", it said.
(Reporting by Daniel Flynn; editing by Jane Baird)