Mercedes Benz supported the Argentine military dictatorship

Argentina – Military dictatorship – Mercedes Benz

The crimes of dictatorships always have an economic dimension and are at least partly driven by financial interests. In its work on Argentina, ECCHR aims to bring to justice those economic actors who supported and profited from the crimes of the Argentine military dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. ECCHR is supporting three cases that are representative of the role played by corporations during the military dictatorship.


In the Mercedes Benz case ECCHR is assisting relatives of trade unionists who disappeared from a Mercedes Benz plant in Buenos Aires. A senior manager at the company stands accused of involvement in the disappearances and murders of trade union activists carried out by Argentine security forces. The case was investigated in 1999 for German television and radio by journalist Gaby Weber. Criminal proceedings on the matter are ongoing in Argentina and a compensation claim brought by the victims is currently pending in the US.


Representing the victims, Wolfgang Kaleck, General Secretary of ECCHR, submitted a criminal complaint in autumn 1999 against a manager at Mercedes Benz Argentina in connection with his role in the disappearance of trade unionists. These proceedings were discontinued by the public prosecution in Nuremberg-Fürth in 2003. An investigation has now been launched into the matter by prosecution authorities in Argentina. In September 2009, ECCHR submitted an amicus curiae brief in the case setting out Argentina’s human rights obligation to investigate corporate involvement in crimes against humanity during the military dictatorship.

In 2004, 22 relatives of the disappeared Argentine trade unionists, joined by survivors in the US, filed a lawsuit against DaimlerChrysler AG with US courts. They based their claim on the Alien Torts Claims Act (ATCA), a US statute dating from 1789.  In May 2011, the United States Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena decided that the courts in San Francisco do have jurisdiction in the case. The case was subsequently referred to the US Supreme Court in order to clarify the question of jurisdiction. In August 2013, ECCHR and the German Institute for Human Rights submitted an amicus brief to the Court in support of the petition of the relatives and survivors. The brief, which was drafted in cooperation with international law expert Alexander Graser, argues that US courts do have jurisdiction and that Germany would not be a viable forum for the case.

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Crimes against humanity

Crimes against humanity are grave violations of international law committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population. Crimes against humanity are part of the core crimes against international law and are subject to universal jurisdiction. Crimes against humanity can include acts such as murder, extermination, enslavement and deportation.

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Between 1976 and 1983, the military dictatorship in Argentina kidnapped, tortured and killed thousands of people. In the early 2000s, many direct perpetrators and high-ranking officials were brought before courts. However, many dictatorship crimes remain unresolved today, especially with respect to cases of corporate involvement in crimes of the military dictatorship. ECCHR has since its establishment been supporting cases examining corporate liability and high-ranking military officials in Argentina. 

The proceedings against managers of Mercedes Benz Argentina, sugar company Ledesma and mining company Minera Aguilar SA show that dictatorship crimes always also have an economic dimension. In those cases, company employees supported Argentine security forces in abducting trade unionists and other staff members. These actions likely amounted to aiding and abetting the crimes of the dictatorship in order to further their own business interests.

ECCHR submitted legal briefs in ongoing proceedings against Mercedes Benz, Ledesma and Minera Aguilar arguing that the Argentine government and judiciary are obliged to hold economic actors liable for their role in human rights abuses committed during the military dictatorship.

Alongside these cases, Wolfgang Kaleck, founder and general secretary of ECCHR, has for many years been involved in litigation in the case of German citizen Elisabeth Käsemann. Käsemann, who had been politically active in the opposition to the Argentine military dictatorship, was kidnapped and tortured in 1977. The exact circumstances of her death have never been properly examined. 


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