Nestlé precedent case: Murder of trade unionist Romero in Colombia

European Court of Human Rights blocks Nestlé/Romero case

Colombia – Trade unionists – Nestlé

No justification and no chance of appeal: the European Court of Human Rights has dismissed a complaint against Switzerland from the widow of murdered Colombian trade unionist and Nestlé worker Luciano Romero. There is no possibility of lodging an appeal against this decision, for which the Court did not give reasons – claimants in the Nestlé/Romero case have now exhausted all legal avenues in Europe. ECCHR submitted the complaint on behalf of Romero’s widow in December 2014 calling on the ECtHR to examine whether the Swiss judiciary adequately investigated Nestlé’s responsibility for Romero’s murder.

The court could have taken this opportunity to clarify how to ensure that victims of human rights violations committed by corporations have access to justice, as provided for in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The Swiss judiciary dismissed all claims against Nestlé in the Romero case. In July 2014, the Swiss Federal Supreme Court held that the crimes in question were now statute-barred.


On 10 September 2005, trade unionist, human rights activist and former Nestlé-Cicolac employee Luciano Romero was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by members of a paramilitary group. His murder came after a number of death threats that arose in the context of a long-standing labor dispute between the Colombian trade union Sinaltrainal and the Nestlé factory Cicolac. In March 2012, ECCHR and Sinaltrainal filed a criminal complaint against Nestlé and some of its top managers with the Swiss prosecution authorities in Zug.

The complaint accuses the Nestlé managers of being in breach of their obligations by failing to prevent crimes of the Colombian paramilitary groups and failing to adequately protect trade unionists from these crimes. The prosecution passed the case on to authorities in Vaud which have jurisdiction over the company’s other headquarters in Vevey. Prosecution authorities in Vaud closed the proceedings in May 2013.


The trade union Sinaltrainal had reported the death threats made against Romero and other members to the Nestlé subsidiary in Colombia as well as to the parent company in Switzerland. Instead of taking the necessary precautionary measures, local Nestlé-Cicolac managers spread libelous reports that Luciano Romero and his colleagues were reputed to be members of the guerilla, rumors which put these individuals in even greater danger.

The parent company Nestlé in Switzerland failed to take actions to prevent the threats and defamations. Criminal proceedings were launched in Colombia resulting in the conviction of the direct perpetrators of the murder of Luciano Romero. In his verdict the Colombian judge stated that Nestlé’s role in the crime was of particular relevance and ordered an investigation to look into the matter in more detail. The Colombian prosecution authorities, however, has to date failed to take up the issue.


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UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, also known as the Ruggie Principles, are among the most important internationally recognized standards on corporate responsibility for human rights.

In 31 principles they set out states’ duty to protect human rights, corporate responsibility to protect human rights, and access to remedy when violations occur. The unanimous endorsement of the principles by the UN Human Rights Council in 2011 represented an important step forward towards corporate liability for human rights.

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For decades, Colombia has suffered under an armed conflict that particularly affects the civilian population. In the course of this conflict (and after), human rights defenders, trade unionists and activists have been labeled as guerrilla fighters, making them into ostensibly legitimate military targets for the Colombian army and paramilitary groups.
In light of the ongoing violence suffered by human rights defenders, trade unionists and activists, and the crucial importance of their work for a free and democratic society, there is an urgent need to take legal action and deter future attacks. The same applies to the widespread sexual violence against women, which is committed by all parties to the conflict and is part of the military strategy. There is a real need to challenge the impunity often enjoyed by those responsible, especially by higher ranking officials. Impunity is also rife when it comes to the impact of transnational corporations' business practices in Colombia. The role of companies in human rights violations is rarely investigated, let alone examined before a court.

In light of the above, the situation in Colombia – which is representative of many recurring global human rights violations – is a focus area of ECCHR's work. The goal is to hold accountable those responsible for international crimes, including the most powerful actors.  Since to date there have been no effective investigations against high-level state officials in Colombia, ECCHR and its Colombian partner organizations are also calling on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take action.


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