Week of 13 September 2021
A company can be charged with complicity in crimes against humanity for human rights abuses committed abroad
Our key takeaway: What happens in conflict zones does not stay in conflict zones. A company can be charged with complicity in crimes against humanity for human rights abuses committed abroad – even if the company does not intend to be associated with the commission of these crimes.
The French Supreme Court (the ‘Cour de cassation’) approved the indictments of LafargeHolcim SA (Lafarge) for complicity in (1) crimes against humanity and (2) financing of terrorism committed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (‘ISIS’) and other armed groups in Syria:
- The facts, as reported by the Court: Lafarge, a French building materials company, operated a cement plant on Syria’s northern border with Turkey during the 2011 Syrian civil war, until its rapid evacuation in 2014. This was in contrast to other companies that left Syria in 2012, when the European Union established an embargo. To maintain its activities, Lafarge was able to continue its activities by using intermediaries to negotiate the payment of funds to the armed factions or to trade with them.
- Complicity for crimes against humanity is possible – even if the company is not seeking to associate with the crimes committed: In November 2019, the Paris Court of Appeal had found that there were sufficient elements of proof to consider that crimes against humanity had been committed by armed groups, and that Lafarge had paid money to these armed groups – while being aware of the nature of the abuses. However, the court ruled at the time that there were no “serious or concordant signs of complicity” on the part of the company. This is because the company’s financing of the armed groups was intended to enable it to continue its activity in the midst of a war zone, and not to associate with the crimes committed. The French Supreme Court found otherwise, and quashed the annulment of the charges of crimes against humanity. The Court found that complicity in crimes against humanity is possible, even if the company does not intend to be associated with the commission of these crimes. What matters is whether the company had knowledge of the preparation or commission of such acts and whether its assistance facilitated these acts. The Court in this case found that “the knowing payment of several million dollars to an organization whose purpose is exclusively criminal is sufficient to characterize the complicity, regardless of whether the entity is acting in pursuit of a commercial activity.” The Court also upheld the charges of financing terrorism.
- Groundbreaking nature of the case: Natia Navrouzov, Legal Advocacy Director at Yazda commented that “Lafarge’s actions facilitated unimaginable harm, including sexual enslavement and torture, inflicted by ISIS to hundreds of Yazidi survivors trafficked and held captive in Syria, only a few kilometres from the cement plant. The least Lafarge can do now is to take responsibility and compensate the victims.” Yazda counsel Amal Clooney commented that: “In a historic judgment, the French Supreme Court has confirmed that if corporations are complicit in heinous crimes, they must answer to a court. Corporations should take note: if they are complicit in human rights violations they will be held to account and victims will be entitled to reparations.”
Cour de Cassation, Information judiciaire portant sur les activités d’une société française pendant la guerre civile en Syrie (Cour de Cassation, 7 September 2021)