A French court issued a precedent-setting ruling Wednesday that will allow Lafarge, one of France’s biggest companies, to be charged with aiding and abetting crimes against humanity after it was accused of financing terrorist groups, including the Islamic State, while operating in Syria during the country’s bloody civil war.
The ruling by the Paris Appeals Court against Lafarge, a global cement maker, is the first time that a company, as a legal entity, has been indicted in France for complicity in human rights violations. The judgment sets the stage for a lengthy legal battle in a scandal involving high-level corporate officials that came to be known in France as “l’affaire Lafarge.”
A French judicial investigation found that between 2012 and 2014, the company, through its Syrian subsidiary Lafarge Cement Syria, paid up to 13 million euros (about $17.5 million at the time) to various armed groups, including the Islamic State. The subsidiary made these payments in order to keep its cement factory in northeastern Syria running despite the ongoing war and kidnappings and the security threats faced by its employees, according to the investigation.
A New York Times inquiry showed that Lafarge paid intermediaries who were suspected of funneling payments to armed groups, and eventually the Islamic State, in a bid to allow the factory and its employees to continue operating without interference.
Eight former company executives, including two former chief executives, were indicted in 2018 on charges of financing terrorism and putting the lives of their workers in Syria at risk. All of those officials resigned, and the company merged with the Swiss cement giant Holcim in 2015.
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If found guilty of that charge, the former officials could face penalties of up to 10 years in prison.
The penalties for a company found aiding and abetting crimes against humanity were not immediately clear.
Holcim did not comment immediately after the ruling Wednesday. The company has said it had nothing to do with the acts of former Lafarge executives and that the events described by the judicial investigation were hidden from Holcim during the merger and the legal audit that preceded it.
The lawsuit was brought on behalf of 11 Syrian former employees by the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights and Sherpa, a French anticorruption organization that pursues humanitarian abuses by corporations. The employees, in the lawsuit, claim that the company ignored the dangers they faced and pressured them to keep working even as the civil war waged around them.
The Paris Appeals Court ruled last year that Lafarge could not be charged with complicity in crimes against humanity. But after France’s highest court, the Cour de cassation, ordered the appeals court to review its judgment, the lower court reversed course on Wednesday.
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French judicial investigators said that while Lafarge evacuated top-level executives running the plant, it kept Syrian employees on site, partly in hopes of maintaining business for the eventual rebuilding of Syria after the war.
But in 2014, as the fighting moved closer to the plant, which was located on Syria’s northern border with Turkey, a number of employees said they were forced to flee the factory just before the Islamic State attacked it. The factory was subsequently shut down and converted into a strategic base for the United States military until Washington withdrew its forces from Syria in 2019.
The lawsuit underscores the costs and complexity of doing business in war-torn regions, a challenge faced by companies around the world, especially those in the energy and industrial sectors. In the case of Lafarge, those trade-offs left it exposed to a French criminal investigation and claims by employees that the company ignored the dangers they faced.
“This ruling should be a strong wake-up call for companies doing business in conflict zones,” said Cannelle Lavite, co-director of the business and human rights program at European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. “If they enable or fuel crimes — even if they only pursue commercial purposes — they might be complicit and should be held accountable,” she said.
The case could take months or even years to go to trial. All of the former Lafarge executives have denied the charges against them.