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The uphill battle against impunity for business-related human rights abuses

Last week a US jury returned a guilty verdict in a criminal case against four former Blackwater security guards regarding the 2007 shooting of Iraqi civilians in Nisour Square, Baghdad.  This verdict highlights that the private military contractors increasingly used in conflict zones can be held accountable for their actions, although this is the “exception rather than the rule”, as a UN expert group said.  The verdict also reminds us that, even when some employees are held criminally liable, companies can continue to act with impunity.

During the 2007 incident, Blackwater guards shot into a crowd of unarmed Iraqi civilians, killing 14 and injuring 20; among the Iraqis killed was a nine year old boy.  This case is emblematic of the complexity involved in seeking to hold a company legally accountable for human rights abuses.  In this lawsuit, the US Department of Justice won a criminal case against four of the Blackwater guards involved, but these guards were not the company’s primary decision-makers.  Efforts to hold the company and its senior leadership accountable in civil proceedings have mostly failed.  Blackwater’s successor company continues to be awarded US Government contracts.  As Baher Azmy of Center for Constitutional Rights said “holding individuals responsible is not enough.  If corporations like Blackwater, now known as Academi, are granted the rights accorded to ‘people’ they must also bear the responsibilities.”  (Center for Constitutional Rights represented the Iraqi victims.)  Increasingly we see corporations being granted greater rights, such as freedom of speech and even freedom of religion in the United States, but we do not see corresponding responsibilities being required of corporations.

Our Corporate Legal Accountability hub profiles over 100 lawsuits, including this Blackwater case.  These profiles provide concise summaries of lawsuits against companies over human rights abuses all over the globe.  In many of the lawsuits we have profiled, the victims have been left without legal remedy, and the company continues operating with impunity.  In the case of the Blackwater prosecution, it is questionable whether the victims achieved justice with the guilty verdict last week.  Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist who has written extensively about private military security contractors, noted: “Just as with the systematic torture at Abu Ghraib, it is only the low level foot-soldiers of Blackwater that are being held accountable.”

Combatting this culture of impunity is a constant uphill struggle.  Among the cases profiled on our site in which courts have not provided legal redress for victims from the defendant company and its decision-makers, are:

  • A lawsuit brought against KBR and its Jordanian partner, Daoud & Partners, by the families of 13 Nepali men who were allegedly trafficked to work at military bases in Iraq.  The plaintiffs’ case was dismissed in early 2014 on the basis that the harms involved in the case occurred outside the United States. 
  • In 2007, Chiquita settled a criminal complaint filed by the US Government regarding payments it had made to designated terrorist organizations in Colombia.  Following this settlement, families of Colombian individuals killed by these organizations filed lawsuits against Chiquita alleging that the company’s payments made it complicit in the organizations’ killings and violence.  To date, these efforts to hold the company to account have failed, despite the company’s admission that it made the illegal payments. 
  • In a lawsuit against the Canadian company Anvil Mining (now part of China Minmetals), the plaintiffs have exhausted every known option to hold the company legally accountable for its alleged complicity in a 2004 army attack on the town of Kilwa, Democratic Republic of Congo, which included the rape, torture and killing of villagers.  The plaintiffs have sought legal remedy in courts of DRC and Canada to no avail.

In each of these cases, despite the ample evidence presented by plaintiffs, the courts have dismissed the cases because of the extraterritorial nature of the alleged abuses, and the companies continue to operate without any consequences for their actions.

Those seeking to address business-related human rights abuses largely welcomed the recent Blackwater verdict as a step in the right direction.  However, without effective and uniformly enforceable judicial remedies for corporate legal accountability, bad actors in the business world can operate with impunity, responsible companies face an uneven playing field, and companies and other stakeholders face deep uncertainty about their obligations and liabilities.  By highlighting efforts by victims of abuse to hold the perpetrators legally accountable, we seek to provide both a cautionary tale for companies that may become involved in abuses, and helpful guidance for victims seeking redress.  Every single day, across the globe, we can see impact of business on our daily lives.  When this impact results in abuse of human rights, we must not allow such abuse to occur with impunity.