French-Swiss company LafargeHolcim sued for grave crimes in Syria
France has launched a judicial inquiry into the Syrian activities of cement and construction group LafargeHolcim. On 6 June 2017, the Paris High Court (Tribunal de Grande Instance) nominated Charlotte Bilger and Renaud Van Ruymbeke, of the financial division, and David De Pas, of the anti-terrorism division, address claims that include financing of terrorism, endangering lives, exploitative labor work and undignified working conditions, leveled against the Franco-Swiss industrial group LafargeHolcim. The judicial investigation follows a criminal complaint filed by a number of former Syrian Lafarge employees together with ECCHR and French NGO Sherpa in November 2016.
The formal opening of the investigations in the Lafarge/Syria case is an important step towards showing that corporations are not beyond the law and must be held to account.
Important step in Lafarge/Syria case: Nomination of investigative judges (PR in Arabic, 13 June 2017)PR_Ar_Lafarge_Syria_Investigation Judges_20170613.pdf (333.5 KiB)
Video: The Lafarge case
On 15 November 2016 eleven former Syrian employees of French company Lafarge submitted in Paris a criminal complaint against Lafarge together with ECCHR and the Paris-based association Sherpa. Represented by maître Marie Dosé and maître Jean-Christophe Ménard, the suit was filed against cement-manufacturer Lafarge and its subsidiary Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS) for its actions in Syria. By having business relations with the terrorist group ISIS in Syria, this company may have taken part in the financing of the group, being therefore complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Miriam Saage-Maaß, Vice Legal Director at ECCHR said: "Subject to final ruling, this case may be a good illustration how multinationals doing business in conflict zones can directly fuel armed conflicts and contribute to grave human rights violations committed therein. Companies like Lafarge must be held accountable."
Laëtitia Liebert, Sherpa’s Executive Director added: "This is the first time non-profit organizations have filed suit against a multinational corporation for financing terrorist activity and complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity."
Business in Syria: Lafarge admits mistakes, CEO resigns
The complaint also had consequences within the company: In March 2017, after an internal company review, Lafarge indicated that its subsidiary LCS had paid money to armed groups in Syria. On 24 April 2017, the CEO announced he would resign due to the controversy.
Lafarge in Syria
LCS owns a cement factory in the north of Syria, between Raqqa and Manbij. In 2012, when the conflict escalated in the north of the country around Raqqa and Aleppo, LCS repatriated its expatriate staff, while Syrian employees kept on working in the Jalabiya plant.
During 2013, conflicts intensified and ISIS seized the north of Syria. Check points controlled by this organization multiplied on the roads surrounding the Lafarge plant.
According to the information Sherpa and ECCHR collected, LCS would have entered into arrangements with ISIS in order to maintain production, by paying for passes issued by the jihadist organization and buying raw materials necessary for cement production such as oil and pozzolana in areas under ISIS’s control.
‘They (ISIS) delivered a specific document from ISIS that enabled cement trucks from Lafarge to cross their checkpoints. At the beginning in May 2014, it was a simple note from ISIS, written by hand, where they had put the stamps of the financial department of ISIS.’ explains an employee who was working at the plant at the time.
Accusations of endangerment of employees
Sherpa and ECCHR are also filing suit against the cement-manufacturer and its subsidiary for reckless endangerment. According the gathered information, the French company did not set up safety measures suitable to the ongoing crisis in the area in which the plant was situated: employees kept on going to work in spite of the many dangerous checkpoints controlled by ISIS; they escaped on their own when the plant got attacked, etc.
An employee present at the plant on the day of ISIS’s attack states: "Why did Lafarge not evacuate us? Even inhabitants from the nearby village fled the day before the attack. It seems like Lafarge used us as a human shield to protect the plant. They've put us too much in danger."
Accusations of complicity in War Crimes
There is no doubt that ISIS is committing war crimes and crimes against humanity every day. Exposing employees to such dangers and presumed financing of the terrorist group activities would lead the company to be complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for the judicial authorities to regulate the actions of multinationals through the activities of their subsidiaries and their subcontractors abroad when they are at the origin of the violation of fundamental rights.
The French bill of duty of care, which would guarantee respect for human rights by regulating the activities of multinationals and on which the parliamentarians will vote on 29 November, appears more essential than ever.