Volkswagen in Brazil: Automobile group collaborated with military dictatorship

Brazil – Military dictatorship – Volkswagen

Mercedes Benz in Argentina, Volkswagen in Brazil. Economic players, including multinational automobile companies, were beneficiaries of the military dictatorships in Latin America. A number of cases also point to complicity in the arrest and torture of trade unionists.

In Brazil, the public prosecutor’s office has been investigating Volkswagen (VW) since 2015. Trade unionist and torture survivor Lúcio Bellentani, who passed away in June 2019, was in discussions with ECCHR about possible legal steps against VW in Germany. The goal was reparations as well as a judicial determination of VW’s share of responsibility for the torture.

Case

During the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964-1985), Lúcio Bellentani worked for Volkswagen do Brasil, a VW subsidiary, and was active as a trade unionist. In July 1972, secret police arrested him at his workplace – in full view of the VW factory security guards. According to Bellentani, the head of factory security held a weapon to his back. After his arrest, Bellentani spent eight months in detention, where he was tortured, followed by a further approximately 16 months in prison.

In September 2015, Bellentani and other trade unionists filed a complaint against VW do Brasil in São Paolo. The company was accused of spying on its workforce and handing over opposition members to be tortured. The competent authority in São Paolo then investigated the matter, and out-of-court negotiations involving the affected workers were conducted in parallel. In September 2020, an agreement was reached: VW do Brasil would pay approximately 5.6 million euros to support those affected, for a memorial and for an academic study about the military dictatorship.

Context

Since its establishment, ECCHR has investigated corporate collaboration with Latin American military dictatorships, particularly in Argentina, Colombia and Brazil. Through this work, we aim to advance criminal proceedings against companies and their managers for aiding and abetting torture, kidnapping and repression.

Media

Volkswagen in Brazil: Claudia Müller-Hoff (ECCHR) with Lúcio Bellentani (middle) and another ex-Volkswagen worker © Photo: ECCHR
Volkswagen in Brazil: Claudia Müller-Hoff (ECCHR) with Lúcio Bellentani (middle) and another ex-Volkswagen worker © Photo: ECCHR

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Civil action

A civil action is a lawsuit brought by an individual against another private individual or entity. Such cases are heard in civil courts.

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Insight

Corporate responsibility

In Pakistan, workers died in a fire at a textile factory because fire safety measures had been neglected. In Peru, people living near a copper mine became ill after pollution leaked into the groundwater. In Bahrain, critics of the regime were arrested and tortured after police used commercial surveillance software to tap their phones and computers. In these three examples, responsibility for human rights violations can be traced back to foreign companies in Germany, Switzerland and the UK, respectively.

Both in economic and legal terms, transnational corporations are the winners of the globalized economy. They are often caught up in a broad range of human rights violations, but the people running the firms are only rarely called before the courts, and even more rarely convicted for their wrongdoing.

However, taking legal action against transnational corporations for violations in their global supply chain is slowly becoming a more viable option. Social movements and NGOs from the Global South are increasingly using legal tools to address human rights violations involving foreign companies by taking action in the countries where these firms are headquartered.

ECCHR aims to use legal mechanisms to help break down unjust economic, social, political and legal power relations around the world. In its Business and Human Rights program, ECCHR assists the political and social struggles of those affected by corporate human rights violations by supporting strategic legal interventions in Europe.

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