This week I’m posting a series of updates on recent developments in human rights cases around the globe. Yesterday I wrote about a Dutch court awarding damages to a Palestinian doctor who survived torture in Libya. Today we move onto Colombia and Switzerland…
Luciano Romero, a leader of the Colombian trade union SINALTRAINAL, was assassinated in September 2005 as he prepared to attend a meeting of the Permanent People’s Tribunal to testify against his former employer, Nestlé subsidiary Cicolac – for its ties to paramilitary violence. A Colombian criminal investigation into the responsibility of Cicolac officials, who had spread false rumors of Romero’s membership in guerilla groups and incited violence against him by telling milk suppliers with paramilitary ties that Romero’s activities would drive down their profitability, is stalled. Meanwhile, the responsbility of Nestlé, the Swiss parent company, has simply been ignored by judicial authorities
The European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), along with SINALTRAINAL , recently took a step toward addressing that gap by filing a criminal complaint in the company’s headquarters in Zug, Switzerland. They claim that Nestlé acted with criminal neglect because it knew that its local representatives’ accusations against Romero and its economic ties to paramilitaries amounted to a death sentence for Romero but refused to take mitigating steps. As the numbers of assassinated Cicolac labor leaders mounted, the trade union asked the parent company to intervene, but Nestlé responded that Cicolac had sole responsibility for its actions. This is irreconcilable with Nestlé’s own policy statements, in which it pledges to take responsibility for the whole group’s compliance with internationally recognized labor rights.
The case is important in a number of ways. First, it may definitively answer the question of whether a parent company can divest itself of legal responsibility for abusive acts of its subsidiary of which it is aware and over which it clearly has control (should it choose to exercise that control). Second, it may be the first time that the Swiss courts have been asked to consider the responsibility of a company for actions taken abroad. And third, it will be a test of the Swiss approach to corporate liability, which only kicks in if a company is too disorganized to attribute liability to individual corporate officers and operates mainly as a doctrine of preventing entities from obstructing criminal investigations.