Trial Campaign Against Pillage

To many observers’ surprise, the Swiss Federal Prosecutor has opened a criminal case against Argor Hereaus, a major Swiss Gold refinery company, immediately after TRIAL, the Swiss based anti-impunity NGO along with the Conflict Awareness Project and the Open Society Justice Initiative, held a press conference in Geneva to announce that they had just submitted a criminal denunciation against Argor to the Swiss Federal Prosecutor. The investigation and the evidence gathered indicated that Argor might have refined almost 3 tons of illicit gold between 2004 and 2005. These 3 tons were part of the gold trade pipeline exporting the looted natural resource from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) through Uganda in violation of the embargo imposed by the UN Security Council in 2003. 

The work done by TRIAL has been challenging in order to bring enough evidence for the denunciation to the Swiss Federal Prosecutor. TRIAL’s investigation shows that the Swiss private company knew the origin of the gold, and could not ignore several facts: this gold would bring additional financial means to the militia operating in DRC, it would help forcing people and children to work for them, and maintain the incentive driving the criminals. As early as January 2005, the UN experts officially identified the Swiss company as part of the gold illicit trade pipeline that was fully traced – at every single stage - by their investigation all the way from the mine in Ituri (DRC) to Switzerland. At the time, Argor - who took over the job of refining this gold from a South African refinery that stopped in 2004 doing this business over concerns with the Gold’s Congolese origin and the UN monitoring - was immediately contacted by the experts trying to obtain contradictory views from the Swiss and British companies involved. “Very early on, we had internal discussions with the UN Security Council, remember Kathi Lynn Austin, one of the experts who kept working on the case since then. “As a UN group, we were not prosecuting any individual or company, but simply trying to investigate and document violations of the UN resolution banning from any support direct or indirect to the radical rebels and criminals operating in DRC. Argor was clearly one of the violators named in the list, an information that was published in the UN report and therefore recommending to the UN Security Council to take sanctions such as for example, setting an asset freeze against Argor. But the decision taken by the Security Council was only to put the African companies or individuals on a UN targeted sanctions list for these illicit activities. One of the reasons for that was because the UK and Switzerland were powerful allies that would protect their national corporations. The Swiss and British authorities, responsible under the UN regime to prosecute any author of UN resolution’s violation, never called upon the UN experts group to bring their evidences, and never launched a formal prosecution.” Indeed, at the time, the Swiss mission to the UN in New York, then represented by Peter Maurer - today chairman of the International Red Cross - went on to support Argor, mentioning the already devastating effects of the media coverage against the Swiss refinery, and supposedly affecting its activities. Maurer should not have worried too much, as Argor posted in 2006 a “2005 best profit in years”.  When ultimately in May 2005, the Swiss authorities decided to enforce the sanction regime, weeks after Argos had officially claimed it had stopped refining the Ugandan gold – or to be precise the one from the pillage in DRC- and therefore would not be exposed to prosecution.

According to TRAIL, the Swiss refinery knew or should have assumed that the gold resulted from pillage, a war crime, not to mention the fact that Uganda gold production is notoriously close to nothing, not to mention the fact that the South African refinery drop the job in 2004 due to its awareness of the origin of the gold.

Kathi Lynn Austin, now director at the Conflict Awareness Project comes today with additional evidence of the crime, on top of what the UN report already disclosed to the UN Security Council back in 2005, all of which has been delivered to the Swiss justice. Even though it was unpredictable whether the Swiss Federal Prosecutor would accept to open the case, the story was going to be difficult for Argor. “Even if Argor-Hereaus SA was able at the time (2005) to escape UN sanctions under the embargo, that does not mean that it did not violate Swiss Law” said Bénédict de Moerloose, the lawyer in charge at TRIAL (Track Impunity Always).

For Philip Grant, director of TRIAL: “it is unacceptable that pillaged raw material that are feeding violence in a brutal and horrific war should be refined and prepared for marketing in Switzerland, with total impunity. This should serve as a reminder that corporations are subject to the law and must also be held accountable”.

Whatever national identity they have, indeed.

Jean-Christophe Nothias


©The Anti-Pillage Campaign / TRIAL

 Also: “Corporate War Crimes” by James G. Stewart, The Open Society Institute, 2012.