A deal agreed between lawyers representing victims of the Trafigura toxic waste disaster and a group trying to secure control of the $45 million compensation fund is open to serious abuse, Amnesty International warned on Monday.
Attempts by the group, known as the National Coordination of Toxic Waste Victims of Côte d’Ivoire (CNVDT-CI), to have the money moved to its bank account provoked an international outcry.
All of the 30,000 claimants in the case are actually represented by UK law firm Leigh Day & Co.
The latest deal follows a series of legal battles in Abidjan, the Ivorian commercial capital, to block CNVDT-CI from receiving the money.
Under the new agreement, Leigh Day & Co and CNVDT-CI will jointly oversee a process to validate individual claims for a share of the compensation, approximately US$1,500 per person.
“It is profoundly disturbing that the victims’ lawyers have had to strike a deal with an organization whose claim to represent the 30,000 victims is so patently untrue,” said Widney Brown, Senior Director for International Law and Policy at Amnesty International.
Following the validation process the 30,000 claimants will be able to collect their compensation money from branches of Société Générale bank over the next three consecutive Sundays. Amnesty International understands that any money not claimed in this period will be transferred to CNVDT-CI to distribute.
“This process is wide open to abuse,” said Widney Brown. “Distribution of funds to 30,000 people in just three days is simply not feasible. If the funds are not distributed within the allotted time Amnesty International is concerned that CNVDT-CI will end up walking away with the money anyway.
“We are also concerned that the agreement puts the claimants - who have to collect their payments on a known day and from a known place - at risk of being robbed.”
The situation in Abidjan is fragile, as evidenced by the recent decision of President Laurent Gbagbo to dissolve the government, and this raises even more concerns about the safety and the effective compensation of the victims.
There were reports of police using tear gas to quell unrest following news on Friday that President Gbagbo had dissolvedthe government.
Amnesty International has called on the authorities to ensure that adequate policing, carried out with full respect for human rights, is in place so that the claimants can collect their compensation money in safety.
In August 2006, toxic waste was brought to Abidjan on board the ship Probo Koala, which had been chartered by oil-trading company, Trafigura. This waste was then dumped in various locations around the city, causing a human rights tragedy.
More than 100,000 people sought medical attention for a range of health problems and there were 15 reported deaths.
On 23 September 2009, the High Court of England and Wales approved a $45 million settlement between nearly 30,000 victims of the toxic waste dumping and Trafigura.
Under the terms of the UK settlement, endorsed by the UK High Court, only Leigh Day has the mandate to distribute the money to each and every one of the victims.