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Opinion

Will European companies be held accountable for their involvement in the Syrian war?

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A comprehensive war economy has developed in Syria since the beginning of the armed conflict five years ago. This economy is not limited to the supply of weapons to the various state and non-state parties to the conflict and the financing of Islamic State (IS), an issue that has been extensively reported on for some time. It also includes trade in the raw materials necessary for waging war. IS, for instance, needs great quantities of cement and other construction materials to build and maintain tunnels and military facilities. In addition, as already seen in situations of civil war in West Africa, companies are paying “contributions” to the conflict parties to ensure the continued operation of their business activities in the territory. And it’s not just local, clandestine businesses that are involved; large European companies are as well implicated. It’s long been reported, for instance, that Russian weapons giant JSC Rosoboronexport is supplying weapons to the Syrian government.

Lafarge’s Syrian business

West European companies like the French-Swiss cement firm HolcimLafarge seem to be caught up in the Syrian conflict as well. In mid November French newspaper Le Monde published extensive research on the procedures at the company’s cement factory between ar-Raqqua and  Manbij in northern Syria from 2012 to 2014. According to information seen by Le Monde and the NGOs ECCHR (European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, Berlin) and Sherpa (Paris), Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS) – a subsidiary of Lafarge – entered into agreements with IS in order to continue production. The company is said to have paid for entry permits issued by IS and to have purchased from IS materials needed for cement production such as oil and pozzolana.

As the region began to fall under increasing IS influence, LCS withdrew its non-Syrian staff from the company base, while the Syrian staff continued working there. The information seen by ECCHR and Sherpa suggests that the French firm did not put in place any security measures such as evacuation plans for the Syrian individuals despite the fact that the crisis in the region continued to escalate until IS occupied the areas around the factory in mid 2013. It seems the workers were left on their own and had to make their own arrangements to escape.

What is the correct response to such allegations?

Sherpa and ECCHR believe that allegations like the ones levelled against Lafarge are about more than just a moral scandal. The alleged activities constitute potentially criminal acts that must be investigated by the appropriate state prosecutors. This view is shared by some Syrians citizens personally affected by the situation in that country. On 15 November 2016 the two organisations together with 11 Syrians submitted a criminal complaint in Paris against the cement company Lafarge and its subsidiary LCS. The allegation: through its business dealings with IS – one of the parties to the Syrian civil war – LCS aided the financing of the group and thus aided war crimes and crimes against humanity. It’s clear that IS committed grave crimes against the civilian population in the region around the Lafarge factory. The complainants argue that a company like Lafarge that does business with IS must assume that doing so will aid IS crimes. ECCHR and Sherpa also accuse Lafarge and its subsidiary of the deliberate endangerment of staff.

The debate on the role of companies in conflict is not a new one. French technology company Qosmos has been accused of supplying the Syrian regime with surveillance technology and thus being complicit in torture and other human rights crimes. There has been much reporting about the financing of parties to civil wars in West Africa through the trade in diamonds and minerals. The initial response to this phenomenon involved sanctions and embargoes, as in Syria now, while it is now internationally debated as to whether and to what extent these measures are effective. In connection with West Africa, efforts are made to regulate the trade in these “conflict commodities” in order to differentiate between these commodities and “conflict-free” goods.

What has long been clear is that in addition to efforts to regulate, there is a need for legal proceedings against individual managers and companies concerning their involvement in crimes relating to business dealings in conflict zones. After all, while it is very important to take preventative measures for future cases, it is equally important to take legal action to address crimes against international law like the ones being committed in Syria on a daily basis. A society can only find a way to live together peacefully if crimes are investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. This principle, laid down during the Nuremberg Trials, applies not just to military and political leaders. It also applies to corporations and their managers who contribute to or profit from conflicts. This concept was also established during the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials against the owners and managers of IG Farben, Thyssen Krupp and other companies. Since then there have been several criminal proceedings taken against companies and managers for their involvement in international crimes. Just recently prosecutors in Switzerland investigated a Swiss-based firm that imported gold from conflict regions in the Democratic Republic of Congo before closing the case in 2015 due a lack of evidence on the question of intent. We hope the French prosecutors will now initiate genuine investigations into the Lafarge case. 

See news coverage of the lawsuit launched by NGOs against Lafarge in France over allegations of financing ISIS & complicity in war crimes in Syria here