Lafarge in Syria

French Supreme Court issues decisive ruling on charges faced by the multinational


Today, the French Supreme Court confirmed the charge of complicity in crimes against humanity against French cement manufacturer Lafarge (now part of Holcim group). However, the court dropped the charge of endangering the lives of its former Syrian employees. The organizations Sherpa and ECCHR regret the setback regarding access to justice for the former Syrian employees.

Between 2012 and 2014, Lafarge allegedly paid up to 13 million euros to several armed groups in Syria, including the Islamic State, to keep its cement factory running in the midst of the Syrian civil war and its atrocities. Lafarge kept the Syrian employees on duty on the premises despite the highly dangerous environment, repeated kidnappings, and risks to their lives.

These decisions are part of an ongoing criminal investigation that follows a complaint filed seven years ago by ECCHR, Sherpa and 11 former Syrian employees and which led to the opening of a judicial inquiry. Today's decision follows Lafarge's appeal against the 18 May 2022 ruling by the Court of Appeal's Investigating Chamber, which upheld the charges against Lafarge for complicity in crimes against humanity and endangering the lives of others.

“Lafarge put my, and my colleagues’ lives at risk simply for their own profits. Companies should not be able to use their power to be free from liability. We will continue to demand the justice we deserve,” said Mohammad, a former employee of Lafarge in Syria and plaintiff in the case.

Complicity in crimes against humanity: a historic precedent confirmed

The court rejected Lafarge’s arguments and confirmed the jurisdiction of French courts over international crimes committed abroad by economic actors and upheld the charge of complicity in crimes against humanity.

Lafarge is the first company, in its legal entity, in the world to ever face such a charge.

“The Supreme Court confirms for the second time that Lafarge can be charged in France with complicity in crimes against humanity in Syria. Businesses that fuel or profit from armed conflicts can no longer claim that their activities are neutral. Companies which transfer millions of euros to armed groups that committed crimes against humanity must be held accountable,” says Cannelle Lavite Co-Director of the Business and Human Rights program at ECCHR.

Another hurdle to access to justice for Syrian plaintiffs

While the criminal investigation revealed that Syrian workers – dozens of whom are plaintiffs in this case – may have been exposed to hazardous risks, including death, injury and kidnapping, the court dropped the charge against the company for endangering their lives, ruling that the safety protections provided by French labor law did not apply to Syrian employees.

The Court ruled that Lafarge's strong involvement in the management of its Syrian subsidiary did not justify the application of French labor law to Syrian workers. However, in 2021, it recognized that the plant's employees were under the effective authority of the parent company, and that the latter had permanently interfered in the management of its subsidiary, including on security matters, which was deprived of autonomy.

The court found that the protections offered by French labor laws could not be seen as mandatory provisions that would override the application of Syrian laws.

An appalling decision for our associations and the Syrian employees who have been fighting for justice for over 7 years. By narrowly interpreting the rules of conflict of laws, this ruling constitutes an obstacle to access to justice for the workers of multinationals.

“This ruling illustrates how the law favors multinational corporations over the protection of workers. While parent companies in France can shift the blame for their wrongful actions to their foreign subsidiaries, justice for those affected by corporate crimes remains an elusive goal,” declares Sandra Cossart, Executive Director at Sherpa.

Our organizations regret that almost six years have passed between this ruling and Lafarge's indictment in June 2018. The slow pace of the appeal procedures against an indictment – which does not constitute a conviction – raises questions about the effectiveness of justice at this stage of the proceedings, which is currently an investigation and not yet a trial.

Lafarge, however, remains charged with complicity in crimes against humanity, financing a terrorist organization and violating an embargo with Syria. Ten people, including several former top executives of the group, are also facing charges.

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Maria Bause
T: +49 30 69819797

Philipp Jedamzik
T: +49 30 29680591