The Lafarge Affair: A First Step Towards Corporate Criminal Liability for Complicity in Crimes against Humanity - By Alexandru Tofan

Editor's note: Before joining the Asser Institute as an intern, Alexandru Tofan pursued an LLM in Transnational Law at King’s College London where he focused on international human rights law, transnational litigation and international law. He also worked simultaneously as a research assistant at the Transnational Law Institute in London on several projects pertaining to human rights, labour law and transnational corporate conduct.

The recent indictment of the French multinational company ‘Lafarge’ for complicity in crimes against humanity marks a historic step in the fight against the impunity of corporations.  It represents the first time that a company has been indicted on this ground and, importantly, the first time that a French parent company has been charged for the acts undertaken by one of its subsidiaries abroad.  Notably, the Lafarge case fuels an important debate on corporate criminal liability for human rights violations and may be a game changer in this respect.  This article analyses this case and seeks to provide a comprehensive account of its background and current procedural stage.



Lafarge is a French-based corporation that became one of the largest cement companies in the world after its merger with Swiss giant Holcim.  The corporate group now has activity in over 80 countries, employing tens of thousands.  Nevertheless, as it currently stands, eight of Lafarge’s former executives, including two CEOs, stand accused of criminal offences for their dealings in the company.  Importantly, on 28 June 2018 the corporate entity was charged with complicity in crimes against humanity and financing of a terrorist enterprise.  These indictments spring from the company’s infamous operations in Syria, which continued for a while during the civil war that tore apart the country. 

Lafarge began its operations in northern Syria in 2007 through the acquisition of a factory plant between the cities of Al-Raqqah and Manbij.  This plant became active in 2010 and was run by Lafarge Cement Syria – a subsidiary owned almost entirely by the French parent company.  The Syrian conflict erupted one year after the plant's opening and it unsurprisingly foreshadowed high security risks both for the factory and its employees. Expectedly, the rapid deterioration of the situation on the ground gradually forced the relocation of most multinationals and international bodies operating within Syria’s borders.  Lafarge Cement Syria did not relocate.  It solely repatriated its international staff, with the local Syrian employees being allowed to continue working in the factory.  As the plant became more and more immersed in Islamic State (IS) territory, the Syrian employees were obliged to cross dangerous checkpoints to access the factory.  Seemingly unconcerned with the risk to which it was exposing its employees, Lafarge threatened that failure to come to the plant would result in salary suspension and even redundancy.  This approach did not cease when the employees voiced concerns that they were facing high risks of death and kidnapping.  Nor did it cease when kidnappings actually started to occur.  Further, Lafarge did not put in place any evacuation plan.  Despite reassurances from the company that there would be evacuation buses, the employees had to fend for themselves when ISIS attacked and captured the plant.



On 21 June 2016, the French newspaper ‘Le Monde’ published an investigation in which it sketched out the connections and financial relationship between Lafarge and the Islamic State.  These accusations were met with a quick response by the French parliament, which concluded in a report from 13 July 2016 that no connection, whether direct or indirect, could be established between Lafarge and the financing of Daesh.[1] Nevertheless, in October 2016, the French Ministry of Finance filed a complaint against Lafarge claiming that it had breached the sanctions imposed by the EU against the regime of al-Assad and the ban on trading with terrorist organisations in Syria.  Following several additional complaints by former employees, a preliminary investigation was opened by the French authorities in October 2016.  As this preliminary investigation continued, the Swiss giant Holcim admitted in March 2017 that Lafarge had financed armed groups in Syria by recognising that ‘unacceptable practices had been employed to maintain the activity and security of its plant’.  This was subsequently corroborated by the former executive Director-General of Operations, Christian Herrault, who stated that the company had bowed to racketeering.

In June 2017, a judicial investigation was launched into the matter triggered by a joint complaint filed by French NGO Sherpa and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights.  At first, this investigation disregarded the two counts of financing terrorism and crimes against humanity lodged against Lafarge as a legal person, and instead focused on the individuals involved.  In November 2017, the Parisian headquarters of Lafarge were raided by the customs police.  The minutes from that search described the atmosphere at the company’s headquarters as a ‘climate of permanent tension’ and a ‘situation of latent conflict’.  On 2 December 2017, the first indictments were released, targeting Frédéric Jolibois (the Director of the plant since the summer of 2014), Bruno Pescheux (his predecessor) and Jean-Claude Veillard (the Director of Security).  Three more indictments followed on 8 December 2017, targeting Bruno Lafont (the former CEO of Lafarge between 2007 and 2015), Christian Herrault (the former Director-General of Operations) and Éric Olsen (the Director of Human Resources at the time of the allegations). These indictments alleged that these individuals were suspected of financing terrorism and endangering other people’s lives. Another indictment followed in April 2018 regarding Sonia Artinian who was Lafarge’s Director of Human Resources between September 2013 and July 2018. She is accused of having endangered the lives of others and is given the status of assisted witness.

In an ordinance dated 18 April 2018, the judges in charge of the investigation returned to the accusations against Lafarge as a legal person, which were initially disregarded by the Parisian Prosecutor.  The judges concluded that the liability of Lafarge SA for financing terrorism and complicity in crimes against humanity deserved to be investigated.[2]  This marks a crucial development in the Lafarge affair.  In sum, the judges opened up, for the first time around the world, the possibility of holding a corporation criminally responsible for its alleged complicity in the commission of crimes against humanity.  Building on the momentum generated by this decision, Sherpa and the ECCHR filed a legal note in mid-May 2018 claiming that it is inevitable at this stage of the proceedings to indict Lafarge for complicity in crimes against humanity and financing terrorism. The two NGOs argued that the crimes committed by the Islamic State in north-eastern Syria between 2013 and 2015 amounted to crimes against humanity and that Lafarge became liable as an accomplice by neglectfully managing its employees’ security and by financing the IS. The complaint claimed that the corporation ought to be held responsible for crimes against humanity under Article 212-1 and Article 461-2 of the French Criminal Code (FCC), financing terrorist enterprises under Article 421-2-2 of the FCC, the deliberate endangerment of other people under Article 223-1 of the FCC,  exploitative and forced labour as well as undignified working conditions under Articles 225-13 and 225-14-2 of the FCC, and negligence under Article 121-3 of the FCC. 

Following these developments, the corporation was called for a hearing before the investigative judges on 5 June 2018, which was postponed on Lafarge’s request. Nonetheless, on 28 June 2018, nearly two years after Le Monde’s revelations, the French investigating judges indicted Lafarge. The historic indictment accuses Lafarge of complicity in crimes against humanity under Articles 212-1 and 461-2 of the FCC, the financing of a terrorist enterprise under Article 421-2-2 of the FCC, endangerment of other people’s lives under Article 223-1 of the FCC and the breach of an embargo (the latter stemming from the original investigation of the Ministry of Finance).  The rationale behind the judges’ decision to try Lafarge for crimes against humanity is grounded in the idea that the corporation could not have ignored the reality of the IS’ deeds and that it facilitated them in full awareness.  As such, Lafarge stands formally accused of having funnelled several million euros to the IS and other militant groups in order to maintain its operations in Syria by paying taxes and by buying raw materials from them. Notably, Lafarge is suspected of having sold cement directly to the IS. Marie-Laure Guislain, a lawyer with Sherpa, stated that if this direct sale is proven, it should be considered a supplementary act of complicity since Lafarge would in effect have facilitated the construction of roads, galleries, bunkers, and places for torture and the commission of other crimes. After the hearing on 28 June, Lafarge Holcim released a communiqué stating that it would appeal the charges, which ‘[...] do not fairly reflect the responsibility of Lafarge’. The company has now been placed under judicial supervision with a bond of €30 million and is awaiting trial. It is also noteworthy that the two NGOs requested that Lafarge open a compensation fund for all the former employees and their families.


The indictment of Lafarge is a game changer in the discussion on corporate criminal liability for human rights violations. It marks the first time worldwide that a corporation is indicted for the financing of terrorist enterprises and for complicity in crimes against humanity. It is also the first time in France that a parent company is being held responsible for the actions undertaken by one of its subsidiaries abroad. Nevertheless, despite this unquestionable novelty, Lafarge’s indictment is by no means a totally unexpected development. Since there is currently no international criminal court with jurisdiction over legal persons, corporate criminal liability cannot be pursued at the international level. Rather, this process must necessarily begin at the national level through the practice of domestic courts and actors.  The US Supreme Court might have been right in stating in the Jesner et al. v Arab Bank, PLC case that the international community had not yet taken the step towards a universal, specific and obligatory standard of corporate liability for offences in violation of human rights protections. Yet the Lafarge case is clearly a first step in that direction. Its value lies in its potential to set an important precedent for all multinationals that engage in economic activity around armed conflicts and which are therefore at a high risk of contributing to human rights violations.

[1]           In French: “Selon Le Monde, le groupe Lafarge aurait ainsi payé à Daech diverses taxes en échange de la circulation de ses marchandises et de ses salariés et se serait approvisionné en matières premières [...] Les éléments auxquels le Rapporteur a pu avoir accès ne confirment en rien ces accusations. Rien ne permet d’établir que le groupe, ou ses entités locales, ont participé, directement ou indirectement, ni même de façon passive, au financement de Daech”. See here at page 90.

[2]          In French: Les deux associations, avec 11 anciens salariés, avaient été les premières à lancer une plainte pour «financement du terrorisme» contre Lafarge, qui a fusionné avec le Suisse Holcim en 2015, en visant aussi la «complicité de crimes contre l'humanité et de crimes de guerre».

Si le parquet de Paris avait écarté ces deux qualifications à l'ouverture de l'instruction en juin 2017, les juges estiment que ces faits ont «vocation à être instruits», selon une ordonnance du 18 avril dont a eu connaissance l'AFP.


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