A French court ruled multinational cement firm Lafarge should face charges of complicity in crimes against humanity after its subsidiary allegedly paid up to 13 million euros (U.S. $14 million) to armed groups—including the Islamic State—to keep its Syrian cement factory running between 2012-14.
The May 18 ruling follows a decision by France’s highest court in September 2021 that clarified the legal framework under which a company might be charged for its involvement in human rights violations.
According to the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), which brought the complaint alongside human rights group Sherpa and 11 former Syrian Lafarge employees in 2016, this is the first time worldwide that a company—as a legal entity—is being charged with such human rights offenses.
Lafarge also remains charged with deliberately endangering the lives of its Syrian employees.
“This ruling should be a strong wake-up call for companies doing business in conflict zones,” said Cannelle Lavite, co-director of the ECCHR’s business and human rights program in a statement. “Companies can no longer justify their involvement in criminal actions with financial reasons. If they enable or fuel crimes—even if they only pursue commercial purposes—they might be complicit and should be held accountable.”
The ECCHR hopes a trial will take place “in the near future.”
Former Lafarge executives, including Chief Executives Bruno Lafont and Eric Olsen, have been charged with financing a terrorist group and/or endangering the lives of others over Lafarge’s activities in Syria prior to its merger with Switzerland’s Holcim in 2015. Olsen resigned as LafargeHolcim’s (as the group was then known) first CEO in April 2017, even though the company’s internal investigation into the scandal found he “was not responsible for, nor thought to be aware of, any wrongdoings.”
Charges against Olsen were dropped in 2019.
In March 2017, the company admitted to using “unacceptable” measures to maintain operations at its then-newly built cement factory in 2013 and 2014, which included paying terrorist groups. At the time, however, Lafarge suggested the Syrian subsidiary acted independently and without the knowledge or consent of the board when making payments to high-risk contractors.
In April 2017, the company made public the main findings of an independent report carried out by law firm Baker McKenzie into the allegations. The investigation confirmed Lafarge’s Syrian subsidiary had provided funding to local armed groups in exchange for keeping the Jalabiya cement plant open and protecting employees.
In response to the latest legal decision, Holcim stated, “We strongly disagree with the Court of Appeal’s decision to retain complicity in crimes against humanity within the scope of the investigation of Lafarge.”
The company, which is appealing the decision, added, “The alleged conduct at Lafarge is in stark contrast with everything that the group stands for as a company. The events … were concealed from our board at the time of the merger in 2015 and go completely against our values.”
Holcim said it continues to cooperate fully with French authorities in their investigation.