Swiss Gold Refiner Accused of Profiting from Proceeds of Corporate Pillage

A criminal complaint against a Swiss gold refiner, announced today in Geneva, marks a significant step forward in efforts to combat the illegal exploitation of natural resources from conflict zones, by reviving the recognition that corporate involvement in pillage constitutes a war crime.

 On Friday, 1 November 2013, TRIAL, a Swiss organization that combats impunity for crimes against humanity filed a criminal complaint (dénonciation pénale) with the Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s Office against the refiner, Argor-Heraeus SA.

TRIAL suspects Argor-Heraeus SA of being guilty of the crime of laundering the proceeds of a major crime (blanchiment aggravé) and handling goods pillaged during an armed conflict. From 2004-2005, the company refined almost three tonnes of gold ore pillaged from the Democratic Republic of the Congo by an illegal armed group whose activities were financed by the illicit sale and traffic of this gold ore.

According to TRIAL, Argor-Heraeus knew, or at the least should have assumed, that these raw materials, provided by Hussar Ltd and Hussar Services Ltd, interlinked companies based respectively in Jersey and London, were the proceeds of pillage, which is a war crime.

The complaint is based upon nine years of investigative work carried out by Kathi Lynn Austin, of the Conflict Awareness Project, supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative. The Justice Initiative has also supported TRIAL’s lawyers in developing the international legal arguments around the case.

The results of these investigations have been shared with Jersey Channel Islands and UK law enforcement authorities.

Philip Grant, director of TRIAL, said: “It is unacceptable that pillaged raw materials that are feeding violence in a brutal and horrific war should be refined and prepared for marketing in Switzerland, with total impunity. These practices run contrary to law, but without a clear signal from law enforcement authorities, they will continue. This complaint should serve as a reminder that corporations are subject to the law and

Ken Hurwitz, who heads anti-corruption work at the Justice Initiative, said:

“We are happy to have helped build this case, whose significance goes far beyond Switzerland to the international commodity and financial markets. All companies who chose to trade in conflict zones – in metals, or timber or other resources - must understand that they risk being prosecuted for the war crime of pillage.”

Kathi Lynn Austin, executive director of the Conflict Awareness Project, said:

“In my investigations in eastern Congo, I have witnessed what gold smuggled out of the country pays for: AK47s, ammunition, and explosives that fuel human suffering and continuing regional instability. The Swiss complaint should serve as a global notice to corporations that the trade in conflict gold is illegal and must stop.”

No one has been prosecuted for involvement in corporate pillage since a number of cases were filed against German companies in the years after World War Two over pillaging resources from Nazi occupied territories.

The Justice Initiative’s work on this issue has included publishing a manual for prosecutors on corporate pillage, Corporate War Crimes: Prosecuting Pillage of Natural Resources, outlining the existing jurisprudence and international law on the crime.